Heritage equals jobs

Gov. Gregoire proposes closing the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. Credit: Washington State History Museum

Every Wednesday during the legislative session, the “Heritage Caucus” meets in Olympia to track and raise issues regarding historic preservation, museums, the arts, and other history- and culture-related programs. It’s a ritual taking on urgency this year with so many heritage initiatives on the budget chopping block. Case in point: the caucus meetings are co-hosted and staffed by the Washington State Arts Commission, itself targeted for elimination as an independent agency in the next biennium, and the Washington State Historical Society, proposed for unprecedented budget-slashing.

Pending legislation of all kinds is quickly reviewed at the pre-dawn caucus. On this morning, Jan. 19, it ranged from SB-5109 that would eliminate the requirement to acquire public art when building new public buildings (the state’s 1/2 of 1 percent for arts program), to SB-5183 that would designate the Friday following Thanksgiving as a new state holiday, Native American Heritage Day.

As evidenced by Gov. Chris Gregoire’s draconian budget proposals, making the case for heritage, always tough, is facing major odds in this budget cycle. No one knows just how bad it will be, or who might be dragged into the budget’s black hole next. The general sense is everyone is going to have to do more with less, that’s if they survive at all. With museums facing closure, grant programs terminated, and commissions being legislated out of existence no one seems to know how much will be enough for the cutters, or whether heritage advocates have enough lobbying muscle to make their many and various cases.

One surefire way to get attention, however, is making the “jobs” argument. This is not the time to necessarily argue all the merits of heritage. When asked what message legislators would be responsive to, caucus co-chair Rep. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) said a one-page sheet listing priorities. But what would catch their attention? “Jobs.”

Having anticipated that, Allyson Brooks, head of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic preservation, had already run through a presentation on the state’s Main Street program, which her department took over last year in one of the more recent budget-slashing reorganizations. Main Street used to be in the Department of Commerce, and is now slated to be transferred again, bafflingly, to the Department of Natural Resources along with Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Main Street is a hugely successful, small-budget, high-impact program. One gets the sense that, for some reason, it’s treated like a much-shuffled foster child.

Brooks, an archaeologist by training, says she has been happy to have the program under her wing because she’s learned so much. In reality, she said, Main Street is 20 percent about preservation and 80 percent about business retention and jobs. She ran through a PowerPoint presentation showing that the program’s tax-credits and power to leverage grassroots, downtown business organization and philanthropy, is keeping business districts vital during the recession. In fact, there are promising signs on recovery on Main Streets around the state.

Main Street programs have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in private donations (over $100,000 each in Thurston, Benton and Walla Walla counties), and tens of millions in public infrastructure investments. They’ve created over 4,000 new jobs in the last 10 years, and new and relocated Main Street business in 2010 (144) are actually up over the recession walloped years of 2008 and 2009. That’s down from 239 in 2000, but an upward trend is encouraging. Even more impressive is the jobs category, with 606 new Main Street jobs in the state in 2010, the best year since 2005.

According to Brooks, in 2009, Walla Walla had 18 new business open in their revitalized, wine-centric historic downtown business district, six expanded or re-loctated to downtown, $2,276,000 in new private investment flowed into their Main Street, and 71 new jobs were created. In 2010, they tallied 17 new businesses. A Main Street booster in Port Angeles told the caucus that their downtown district now had 1,200 jobs, making it the largest employer on the Olympic Peninsula. The program, pioneered nationwide by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is so successful that a number of major cities want to get their neighborhoods in on it, including Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma. Brooks hopes the legislature will extend B&O tax credits available in small towns to Washington’s big-city Main Streets too.

So heritage groups are being encouraged to make their economic case, but it’s a bit of a tough sell. Preservation often brings to mind Victorian gingerbread rooftops and stuffy historical societies. Mary Thompson, who founded the Main Street program in Washington, expressed her frustration that the state still doesn’t seem to get that Main Street is all about economic development. One caucus participant complained that even the Office of Financial Management (OFM), the budget team that is supposed to have a grasp on what state agencies actually do, misunderstands Main Street as a marketing program when, in fact, it’s a much more comprehensive approach to managing downtown business districts, not just banners and brochures.

Others can make the economic case too. The Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma, threatened with closing, was critical to leveraging investment and infrastructure improvements and giving people a reason to go to downtown Tacoma. The city’s business and political communities are rallying to their cause.

And the state parks system, severely cut in recent years, not only maintains historic buildings (like those built by the Civilian Conservation Corps), but helps bring business into communities by running facilities like the conference center at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. A flyer passed out at the caucus meeting appealing for restoration of the state’s Heritage Capital Projects Fund highlights the fact that the $10 million invested by the state in 29 restoration projects will “catalyze local investment” and “create construction jobs.”

In short, heritage is woven into the state’s economic fabric in ways people normally don’t think about, and when you start cutting, you might find fiscal unraveling in unexpected areas. The pressure is on heritage advocates to pump up the volume on their economic case in hope they can get heard. It’s the responsibility of budget writers to put aside old preconceptions and give them a fair hearing on their role in the broader economy and recovery. Jobs might not be the primary reason to support heritage, but it’s a timely argument.

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