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Big rocks pulling smaller crowds in N.H.

Theme parks have edge, officials say

CONCORD, N.H. -- The state lost a prominent symbol and popular tourist attraction when the Old Man of the Mountain fell from its Franconia Notch cliffside two years ago.

But tourism officials say they saw reduced interest in the Old Man and other natural attractions well before the granite face collapsed May 3, 2003.

''Nationwide, we're seeing a decline in the historical type attractions, like Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village and Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke Museum. It's a national trend and this is part of that," said Dick Hamilton, a member of the board of directors of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund.

In the White Mountains, ''it is not necessarily a decline, but rather a stagnation," he said of the malaise felt by attractions, such as Heritage New Hampshire in Glen and the natural wonders at the Flume in Franconia Notch, Lost River Gorge in North Woodstock, and the Polar Caves in Plymouth.

Hamilton and Jane O'Connor, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association, said today's tourists are pressed for time and money, and always want to do ''something new."

Amusement and theme parks have the edge, they said, because they can always add a new ride or show.

''It's experiential tourism," O'Connor said. ''People want to get in and try things themselves. They don't want to just look anymore. . . . They want to get out there and touch and feel things.

''Sometimes the interpretive programs get cut when the budget is tight, but that is what people remember. There is a difference between walking through [a gorge or caves] and participating in a guided walk with a naturalist," she said.

The challenge for attractions based on natural wonders is to display them ''so people can experience it on different levels," she said.

There's the new mine at Lost River, where youngsters can pan for gemstones; the rock climbing wall shaped like the Old Man at Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln; the Rock Garden of the Giants at Polar Caves; and the new push-button recordings at Heritage that help tell the history of New Hampshire.

All this has implications for how the state chooses to memorialize the Old Man of the Mountain.

''If we make a significant addition to the park, that will help to get people out of their cars and get more involved. People want to be told a story and be involved in that story," Hamilton said.

Architect Ward D'Elia will speak to what is possible for the Franconia Notch site tomorrow when the legacy fund holds its second annual Profile Awards reception at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

D'Elia said he has tried to do homage to the granite symbol's cultural and historical influence and encourage the enjoyment and use of Franconia Notch as a tourism and educational resource.

''The museum will focus primarily on the legacy of the Old Man . . . and try to capture through the exhibits why so many people who looked at it felt an emotional attachment to this piece of jutting rock," he said.

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