What's Obama got against historic preservation?

The Great Recession and federal and state budget cuts are creating hurdles for heritage advocates who see historic preservation and urban revitalization as a way out of the economic doldrums. Obama's budget is a major setback because it slashes cherished programs.
Crosscut archive image.

Downtown Walla Walla, Wash. (Brent Bergherm)

The Great Recession and federal and state budget cuts are creating hurdles for heritage advocates who see historic preservation and urban revitalization as a way out of the economic doldrums. Obama's budget is a major setback because it slashes cherished programs.

A year ago, hope bloomed. As Barack Obama was inaugurated, some preservationists believed that here was a smart, urban-oriented president who would "get" the role of historic preservation in creating sustainable communities. Historic preservation, we were reminded by the group Historic Preservation for Obama is, after all, "the original recycling." An obvious good, right?

In a Crosscut preview of preservation in 2009, Donovan Rypkema, a specialist in using historic preservation to boost urban economic development (he was recently hired by the city of Seattle to help find a way forward for troubled Pioneer Square), expressed optimism that the Obama administration would "get it." He said, "For anyone with a more macro view of things, historic preservation and urban quality go hand in hand. Historic preservation is certainly not the solution for every urban problem, but it's part of the solution for most of them. And Obama is nothing if not a sophisticated, nuanced thinker." Rypkema expressed hope that Michelle Obama would pick up the cause of preservation as had her two First Lady predecessors, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.

But that optimism had taken a big hit. In Obama's recently proposed budget, he recommends cutting the two major preservation programs that were in fact championed by Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. The Save America's Treasures program, created by Bill Clinton in 1998, is the only federal bricks-and-mortar grant program for preservation and is designed to leverage matching private sector and non-profit funding for projects. It is run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in conjunction with the National Park Service. It has been slated for elimination.

Also on Obama's hit list is Preserve America, a sister program created by George W. Bush in 2003 that promotes community preservation, planning and helps organizations develop stewardship and financial practices with grants. In other words, it's not enough to preserve objects or buildings, you have to help groups sustain protection strategies over the long term.

On top of those cuts, Obama has proposed slashing National Heritage Area funding in half, bad news for Washington state which is in the process of creating a National Maritime Heritage Area to boost cultural tourism in coastal areas, from the Pacific to Puget Sound.

Pat Lally, director of Congressional Affairs for the National Trust, says the proposed cuts are the biggest "assault on the programs that protect America'ꀙs heritage" since the 1980s (that's the Reagan era), and while Lally sees problems at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue (Congress has routinely failed to fully fund preservation programs), the Obama budget cuts are major disappointment and called "short-sighted."

It's not as if the money is funneled to trivial efforts. Save America's Treasures has supported major projects to save America's silent films, public sculptures, Abraham Lincoln's cottage, Ben Franklin's London home, Apollo space artifacts, the Congressional cemetery, Eleanor Roosevelt's papers, Walt Whitman's birthplace, and the actual Star Spangled Banner. In the Pacific Northwest, the funds have helped restore the award-winning Art Deco Fox Theater in Spokane, historic schools and courthouses in Idaho, and support a Native American Heritage Center in Alaska.

For Donovan Rypkema, the hope of '09 has given way to real frustration in '10. When asked about how Obama has performed against his expectations, he replies:

I can no longer give Obama a pass. Of course there has to be cuts, and it isn't the fact that [Save America's Treasures] and Preserve America were cut that angers me. It is that those were two programs listed in the White House blog as poster child[ren] for bad expenditures. They certainly never did any analysis of that. This was the crassest of political demagoguery....

But beyond that, the people in the White House are way too smart for this to be accidental. This was a very public, very classless slap in the face to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, the two First Ladies whose programs they were. Hillary is one thing. But when Michelle Obama was getting heat from everywhere about her performance as First Lady, it was Laura Bush who stepped up and defended her.

....I had great hopes and I was 100 percent wrong.

Rypkema sees the proposed cuts as a failure on the part of the preservation movement itself to make its case. He believes that not only should preservation be able to survive a recession, but that it's vital to economic recovery. Rypkema is critical of the federal stimulus package, which failed to funnel dollars to preservation and heritage projects which have a track record of creating local jobs quickly at low cost and with stimulating redevelopment and reuse:

In December the White House announced that so far the $159 billion spent in grants and loans under the stimulus plan had created or saved 640,000 jobs. But make the next calculation — that works out to $248,000 per job. I want one of those jobs!

The following week Australia released the results of the heritage portion of their stimulus package — cost per job? $21,818 — 11 times the cost effectiveness than whatever the hell we're spending the stimulus money on. In other words, for every million dollars spent through the U.S. stimulus programs, around four jobs were created. For every million the Australians spent on the heritage portion of their stimulus program, 46 jobs were created.

Or, look at it this way....in 7 hours and 50 minutes the interest (forget paying back the principle) on the stimulus package is more than the combined annual budgets of Save America's Treasures and the Preserve America program.

I blamed the Democrats on the Hill rather than Obama for the idiotic allocations in the stimulus bill. We had to have the stimulus, but what the money was appropriated for had everything do to with Democratic constituencies and absolutely nothing about good public policy.

The struggle is at the state level as well here in Washington. The state faces yet another multi-billion-dollar budget crisis, and proposed cuts and reshuffles are stirring Olympia. Last year, the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation was nearly eliminated as an independent department. It survives with cut budgets and employees furloughed, like many other parts of state government. Worse for preservationists is that Gov. Christine Gregoire's proposed budget cut all remaining funding (it was merely slashed last time) for the state's Main Street Program, a nationally proven economic revitalization strategy that has brought new life to historic downtowns from Port Townsend to Walla Walla since the 1980s. Some (like Seattle developer Kevin Daniels) have even suggested Main Street as an answer to Pioneer Square's woes.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is a big advocate of the program and it has some support in the legislature. Yet Gregoire's proposed cut is concerning because it hints that Rypkema is right: preservationists have failed to make the case to the broader public that historic preservation is something more than a luxury. The fact is, for the investment of modest staff support (the Main Street budget is down to about $120,000), communities are able to leverage funds, loans and grassroots organization into local economic vitality. This is the opposite of pouring money back into the pockets of Wall Street bankers, but a job-producing, sustainable way of building communities, especially towns and cities.

Barbara Clark, mayor of Walla Walla, gave an example on a recent edition of KUOW's "The Conversation" with Ross Reynolds." She noted that not only does the economic revitalization of historic retail areas contribute to the state sales tax, a major revenue state stream, but that the leverage of Main Street efforts is enormous. Since 1992, she estimates, downtown Main Street Walla Walla has attracted 267 new businesses with 800 new employees. In addition, $26 million in public investment has attracted $84 million in private investment, triple the public investment.

One proposal for Main Street is to put it under the supervision of the state Department of Historic Preservation, moving it from the Department of Commerce, which makes sense if the legislature also restores its modest funding. If nothing else, the move might help cement the idea that history and the economy are linked in a beneficial way.

Who's going to tell Obama?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.