Their industrial heydays are history, but the Schuylkill and the towns along its banks have become magnets for tourism and businesses, generating over a half-billion dollars annually and supporting more than 6,000 jobs, according to a report released Wednesday.
From the Schuylkill County coal country, a driving force during the Industrial Revolution, to its merger with the Delaware River in Philadelphia, the nationally designated Schuylkill River National Heritage Area "has transformed communities," said the National Park Service-funded study.
The study, the first of its kind for the 128-mile waterway, cited benefits to hotels, museums, retail, restaurants, real estate, and transportation.
Representatives from Chester and Montgomery Counties and federal and state government gathered at Valley Forge National Historical Park to tout the study's findings.
Given fluctuations in funding at the state and federal levels, "now more than ever, it's important to have that support," said Silas Chamberlin, executive director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.
The Park Service commissioned the study and others like it for heritage areas across the country to show their economic benefits.
"National heritage areas" are regions that Congress designates as distinctive for their natural, cultural, and historic resources. A 2015 bill, cosponsored by Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.), would authorize the Interior Department to provide them with money and technical assistance.
A local agency for each area would receive up to $700,000 per year to implement management plans, pay staff, buy goods and services, and encourage "economic viability and sustainability." The bill also would provide several hundred thousand dollars in total grant funds.
Congress already appropriates some funds for the heritage program, with the Schuylkill getting $491,000 in each of the last two years. Funding has been stable in recent years, said Peter Samuel, program coordinator for the Northeast region, which has 21 of the nation's 49 areas.
However, the funds aren't guaranteed, and staff members have to advocate for money every year, said Laura Catalano, a spokeswoman for the Schuylkill area.
Wednesday's report said the Schuylkill area, which spans 1,715 square miles, directly and indirectly generates nearly $590 million annually and $37.7 million in tax revenue.
It includes 45 national historic landmarks and 23,943 properties on the National Register of Historic Places. The study highlighted the restoration of the river and the creation of the Schuylkill River Trail.
Overall, the nation's heritage areas directly and indirectly generate $12.9 billion annually, according to a 2012 study by the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Tripp Umbach, which also conducted the Schuylkill study. The heritage sites also support an estimated 148,000 jobs and generate $1.2 billion in federal tax revenue.
The Schuylkill is one of six sites studied last year.