Monticello, Mesa Verde, the Acropolis, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, Cahokia Mounds: All of these places have been designated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization as World Heritage Sites, meaning they have worldwide importance in explaining the human story.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in 1989 opened its new interpretive center and drew about 500,000 visitors. Fast forward 27 years and little has changed as far as updating the museum, expanding the site or improving public outreach. Things have slipped as the museum closes Mondays and Tuesdays during the winter, the pow wow and other large events have dwindled and the site works to hold steady against state budget vagaries.
Last year 280,000 people visited the site, coming darned close to half of its former popularity.
Before things slip further, something needs to change at the site that in 1250 was larger than London and remained North America’s largest city until Philadelphia surpassed it in 1800.
The HeartLands Conservancy members think the answer is making Cahokia Mounds and the network of other prehistoric Indian mounds in our area part of a National Park unit. They believe that goal would help raise the site’s profile and bump up visits.
Regardless of the mechanism, growing visitors at Cahokia Mounds is an important goal. Just a 10 percent growth in visitors, or 28,000 folks, puts another $2 million in the local economy, according to a St. Louis consulting firm’s analysis.
If that rate holds steady, then getting back to the 1989 level of 500,000 visitors could be worth nearly $16 million.
The Gateway Arch draws 4 million visitors a year, including 1 million traveling to the top of the stainless steel monument to westward expansion. Surely we can draw some of those visitors a few miles across the river to see the largest monument built basket of dirt by basket of dirt by residents of the North American capital of the prehistoric world.
Cahokia Mounds is a source of local pride, but with a little more time and attention from individuals, business and government it can be a source of new revenue. That can happen regardless of whether the federal government shows it the respect that a National Park designation would bring.