Heritage gets hammered in Gregoire's budget

She wants to mothball the state's historical museums and merge our lead preservation agency with the Department of Natural Resources. Her proposals form a budgetary "abyss" for state history.

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

She wants to mothball the state's historical museums and merge our lead preservation agency with the Department of Natural Resources. Her proposals form a budgetary "abyss" for state history.

Washington state heritage, it's so 1990s. 

The Washington State History Museum opened with great fanfare in 1996 and might live to celebrate its 15th anniversary this coming summer. The taxpayer-funded museum was the new headquarters of the Washington State Historical Society, a state agency founded in 1907. It was designed to showcase our collective heritage, educate the kids with fabulous exhibits, and be a key link in the latest revitalization of downtown Tacoma, which has relied heavily on historic preservation. The museum has been a literal bridge between projects: to take the skybridge to Tacoma's iconic Glass Museum, you pass through the history museum site.

But that is all now in serious jeopardy with Gov. Chris Gregoire's new budget proposal. Heritage is not the only thing being slashed, and most would likely say not it's the most crucial, but it is a dark day in state history for state history. As one heritage professional I spoke with said, "it's looking into the abyss." 

The good news, says Dave Nicandri, director of the state historical society since 1987, is that his agency is not slated for outright elimination, unlike the Washington State Arts Commission. But the governor wants to mothball state museums in Tacoma and Spokane, and the shutdown would also include the state Capitol Museum in Olympia, which is already down to a day per week. The cuts would leave only money for a skeleton crew to maintain the buildings and protect the precious artifact and document collections. This, plus cutting educational and outreach programs through local historical societies, would amount to $5.2 million in savings. 

Nicandri says on paper, it looks like he's "only" taking a 52 percent cut in his biennial budget, but most of the remaining funds are to pay for shutdown costs like unemployment benefits for the dismissed staffers. The 105,000 people who visit the museum each year, well, they'll be locked out.

The closures would have ramifications at the very time when businesses are looking to heritage tourism and historic renovation as a way out of the economic dumps. Already Tacoma merchants are sounding the alarm about losing the "synergy" in a district that has been heavily rehabilitated and improved, thanks to anchor projects like the museum. Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is in the historic Browne's Addition neighborhood and said in a prepared statement that "we seriously question the policy decisions that led to this approach." They've already endured 40 percent staff cuts and "are in the black."

Nicandri notes that the state historical society survived the "Great Depression, two world wars and the Cold War." It used to be smaller and benefited during the New Deal from pass-through funding from the WPA. At one time, Nicandri remembers, economic stimulus included history and the arts. But despite its growth and expansion into public engagement, the role it plays in Tacoma's revival and in making local history accessible to the public, the percentage of state funds has declined in the modern era. In the 1980s, the state funded 95 percent of the historical society's budget; today it ranges from 65 to 75 percent, thanks to memberships and fundraising, Nicandri says.

Washington's historical society isn't the only one in trouble. Oregon's has been in crisis for some time with declining state funding and management issues, but was bailed out by taxpayers this November when the citizens of Multnomah County voted to approve a "local option levy" to keep the society, its museum, and library going. Nicandri doesn't believe taxpayers here would have the same option.

The state museums aren't the only area where heritage is taking a hit. Gregoire's budget also proposes eliminating the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and rolling it into the Department of Natural Resources. The proposed budget would trim staff, cut funding by 55 percent, and absorb it into a larger entity, DNR, that has a completely different mission.

DAHP is an agency that can help the state save money by ensuring that major capital projects don't get into trouble and that they adhere to state and federal laws regarding archaeology and preservation. It also deals with identifying and repatriating older human remains, tracks the state's cultural resources, and oversees heritage programs that preserve barns and add properties to the state heritage list, a step to getting on the National Historic Register. It plays a key role in which major state and federal capital projects go forward; and it has access to the governor as part of the executive branch.

One of the odd results of this marriage would be the state's Main Street program, recently taken over by the DAHP and so vital to bringing back commercial districts in small towns and cities, would find itself managed by an agency whose mission is essentially forestry. Chris Moore, field director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, says the proposed cuts and consolidation are "startling," noting that programs like Main Street are "absolutely outside of DNR's mission." What do tree harvesters know about urban redevelopment? I guess we'll find out.

It would be Main Street's third agency in a year and a half, a strange, gypsy existence for a proven economic development group that is poised to expand its work in the state's larger cities, including Seattle's Pioneer Square. Since most of the funding and work happens in small towns, marginalizing the effort is a bit of a slap at the grassroots folks who are trying to generate local economic activity.

The move could also jeopardize the clout of the existing agency, which can independently review the work of other state entities, including DNR, to make sure they are following laws regarding archaeology and historic preservation. It might be noted that DNR earlier this year eliminated one of its few heritage programs, the State Board of Geographic Names. It was a "cost-cutting" measure impacting a board that had already been turned into a volunteer activity, so one wonders what the agency's commitment to state heritage really is, and how the agency can fulfill it with such deep cuts. Washington is now the only state in the country that does not have charge of its own maps and place names.

It's clear that Washington is in hatchet mode, which is both a result of reality, foolishness, and scare tactics. The DAHP-DNR consolidation would take place in July 2012, so there's time built in to undo decisions in a supplemental budget down the road if the economy and state revenues look like they're improving. In the meantime, the governor has seized everyone's attention. 

If this budget moves ahead, perhaps if any budget does, we're going to have a state population that is more hungry and less healthy, but it will also be one that is more ignorant about about place and past, something the pioneers of this state sought to prevent with the foresight of creating state-funded mechanisms for preserving and honoring our heritage, and heritage-to-be.

Now, those are considered little more than baggage to be thrown overboard.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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