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Remembering the Past To Help the Future

Andrew Downs

May is National Historic Preservation Month.  This is the month when federal, state, and local governments, non-profits, and other organizations engage in a special effort to instill pride in our histories, promote heritage tourism, and show the economic and social benefits of historic preservation. 

Listeners to WBOI already know that historic preservation can provide a sense of community pride and create tourism opportunities thanks to the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi every Monday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

There are federal programs that support the development of community pride and tourism.  Two that are better known are the Historic Preservation Fund which has provided over $1.4 billion in grants and the National Register of Historic Places which contains over 80,000 properties including many in Northeast Indiana. 

What people may not realize is that historic preservation can be an economic driver.  The lack of understanding about the economic potential of historic preservation may come from our anecdotal knowledge of some friend who has purchased a money pit or the stories we hear from time to time about heroic efforts to save a severely damaged building. 

Historic preservation is an economic strategy that allows cities and towns to compete with suburbs.  It does this by reusing existing buildings and infrastructure and creating locations that are unique and can serve niche markets.  These strategies also may be counter-cyclical to other economic development strategies which can help to stabilize a local economy.  

Governments promote historic preservation as an economic driver through several programs.  In fiscal year 2013, federal tax incentives helped create almost 63,000 jobs and more than 25,000 new or renovated housing units with more than 7,000 of those units being for low and moderate income individuals and families.  Since their inception, Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits have leveraged more than $50 billion in private investment.  Indiana also offers tax credit programs and the City of Fort Wayne has preservation programs as well. 

If you would like to see what an adaptive reuse of a building looks like, you can drive by the law firm of Van Gilder and Trzynka at the corner of Clay and Wayne in downtown Fort Wayne.  This building was originally a Goodrich Silvertowns business.

"...Not every effort at historic preservation will work out financially. Historic preservation is not part of a get rich quick scheme and rehabilitating older buildings is likely to come with more uncertainty than building a new building."

Like with any investment and economic development strategy, not every effort at historic preservation will work out financially.  Historic preservation is not part of a get rich quick scheme and rehabilitating older buildings is likely to come with more uncertainty than building a new building.  Maintenance is the key to the long life of any building.  Deferred maintenance may jeopardize the economic viability preservation projects. 

While many government programs report their historic preservation activities, there is a need for much more rigorous research to determine the true economic benefit of historic preservation.  One of the authorities on the economic benefits of historic preservation is Donovan Rypkema.  He and others including Caroline Cheong and Randall Mason have taken initial steps toward the development of a sound methodology for doing so. 

You can read those recommendations in Measuring Impacts of Historic Preservation which was issued in November of 2011. 

Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column.