Save America's Treasures Needs Some Saving of Its Own
By Andrea L. Dono | Online Only | February 4, 2010
Coming on the heels of last year's announcement on Save America's Treasure's 10th anniversary, preservationists learned this week that the nation's only bricks-and-mortar preservation program is on the chopping block. Questioning the benefits of Save America's Treasures (SAT) and the Preserve America educational and outreach program, President Obama has proposed eliminating both programs, among others, saying that they "weren't working well."
Those of us working in historic preservation-based revitalization don't live in a bubble. We know that America is fighting two wars and unemployment is high. But SAT funding is money that not only protects our heritage; it also creates jobs. It's a resource for smart growth: historic commercial districts can rehab and reuse their old buildings for new economic uses. By filling renovated buildings with new employees instead of adding demolition waste to landfills, we're making America's older communities more sustainable environmentally and economically.
Save America's Treasures
More than 200 Main Street communities that have benefitted from SAT matching grants – projects ranging from preserving and interpreting the historic American Cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana, to providing funds to the Culpeper (Va.) Main Street program – would disagree. Most preservation and revitalization projects rely on a creative blending of public and private funding from a multitude of sources. Outside of construction projects, it may not seem obvious that saving the Native American Collection at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln, for example, is important to revitalization. However, when you see that heritage tourism is a $740 billion industry with more than 8 million people on its payroll, an exhibit can bring much-needed revenue to local tax coffers and employees.
During a recession, fund-raising challenges and stalled construction projects make matching grants like SAT funds critical to help reinvestment projects go forward. A high-visibility governmental grant can be the corner piece in the funding puzzle – the piece that gives other potential investors the confidence to contribute. In this way, the SAT program spurs community revitalization and effectively leverages other private and public investment because it requires matching funds from the recipient.
Of the six hotels designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, only one still stands – the Historic Park Inn, located next to the National City Bank Building, another one of his projects – in Mason City, Iowa. Both buildings were listed in the National Register for Historic Places in 1972. Just last month Wright on the Park, Inc., the community-led nonprofit group that is spearheading the fight to save both buildings in this Main Street town, signed $15 million in construction contracts. The $18.5 million adaptive-use project will convert both buildings into a four-star boutique hotel scheduled to open in the spring of 2011.
This is an amazing accomplishment considering that the Mason City Council voted in 2005 to put the hotel up for auction on eBay. SAT funds infused $500,000 into the Park Inn and $394,000 into the National City Bank Building. This federal investment was matched and combined with private donations, New Markets Tax Credits, federal and state historic tax credits, and a loan from the Iowa Community Development Corporation.
"SAT has been critical to the success of this project. We have received funding from a variety of sources, but this particular grant came at a pivotal time while we were developing architectural documents," says Ann MacGregor, a board member of Wright on the Park. "If we didn't get this funding to put toward construction, we'd still be scratching around for dollars."
Another example in Louisiana's Cane River National Heritage Area illustrates the power of SAT projects to complement a Main Street program's work. A $250,000 SAT grant leveraged money raised locally to restore the beautiful Prudhomme-Rouquier House and turn it into a meeting and reception space that spurs economic activity throughout the city. Weddings and events at the mansion draw significant crowds throughout the year. The rehabilitation of this 1806 Creole structure allows it to capture the history and living traditions of French, Spanish, African American, American Indian, and Creole cultures, as well as bringing in tourism dollars. While this project was not solely responsible for the $15 million in public investment and $48 in private investment that Natchitoches has enjoyed since 1993, it shows the success of building on one revitalization project at a time for the good of the entire community.
The need for more SAT-funded projects that create jobs and spur investment is great. Last year's competition for SAT grants alone was fierce; almost 400 applications requesting more than $100 million were received.
"It's hard to understand why the administration would want to eliminate a program widely regarded as the most successful preservation effort in American history, and one that drives economic development and creates jobs in rural areas, small towns, and big cities in every state and territory," says Bobbie Greene McCarthy, director of Save America's Treasures at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "There is absolutely no replacement for this program – if this money is no longer available, our historic legacy and the communities in which they are located will be the big losers."
Preserve America communities are also important to Main Street revitalization. More than 200 Main Street districts and downtowns have been recognized by the program. These communities receive recognition by the White House for developing innovative ways to leverage historic resources for economic development and revitalization. The matching grants Preserve America offers have been used to fund heritage tourism, education, and historic preservation planning.
Every year Main Street communities are among Preserve America's grantees. Similar to SAT awards, recipients of this honor and matching grant come from all over the nation and finance a variety of projects in historic commercial districts. Bastrop, Texas, a town selected as one of this year's Dozen Distinctive Destinations, received $70,000 to build the El Camino Real de los Tejas trail that shares the area's diverse culture and history with visitors. Frederick, Maryland, used its $150,000 grant to develop a comprehensive interpretive program for the Frederick Visitors Center and install heritage trail markers along pedestrian pathways leading into downtown Frederick. Fayetteville, Georgia, channeled $31,000 to improve heritage wayfinding signs and walking tour brochures for the historic downtown to boost its heritage tourism initiatives.
Natchitoches also received a $150,000 Preserve America grant, $100,000 cash match, and $50,000 in-kind match that combined to fund one of the most extensive wayfinding systems in Louisiana. Wayfinding was identified as a critical element to support heritage tourism, the city's number one industry.
"Our wayfinding signage helps direct visitors from the interstate to the historic district and throughout the heritage area and nearby plantations. Visitors can use these wonderful signs and accompanying documents to guide them to public facilities and historic sites," says Leslie Smith, Natchitoches' Main Street manager. "This never could have happened without the Preserve America grant, which gave other financial contributors the confidence to provide matching funds."
Main Street Advocacy
The advocacy campaign is being developed right now. Our threatened heritage assets have an expiration date – if not stabilized or rehabilitated they reach a point of deterioration that cannot be reversed. This is why we must act now and invite you to join us. Make appointments for in-district visits with your legislators during President's Day and make your reservations now for Lobby Day – because we will need you here. Check PreservationNation.org daily for updates and your e-mail inbox for advocacy alerts.
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