More victims of the heritage hatchet

Gov. Gregoire cancels $10 million in heritage capital grants, impacting restoration projects statewide. Seattle is especially hard hit.

Crosscut archive image.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has cut a restoration project for the Fort Nisqually Granary in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park is being cut from her budget proposal.

Gov. Gregoire cancels $10 million in heritage capital grants, impacting restoration projects statewide. Seattle is especially hard hit.

It reads like a list of Seattle's major arts and heritage entities: the Seattle Art Museum, the Center for Wooden Boats, the Museum of History and Industry, King Street Station, Historic Seattle. These are just a few of the groups that applied for and were recommended to receive state grants through a long-running program to provide assistance for heritage  projects, from restoring old theaters to updating museum plumbing to building new educational facilities. 

But like many programs, this one has fallen to Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget axe. All told, Seattle will lose out on nearly $5 million in funding over the next two years; another $5 million has been cut for programs around the state. Twenty-nine projects in all are affected. 

State law allows up to $10 million dollars of state bond money to be appropriated for projects through the Heritage Capital Projects Fund each biennium. The projects are vetted by the Washington State Historical Society and reviewed by the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. An advisory committee then recommends worthy projects for funding. The governor puts them in her capital budget plans and asks the legislature to allocate the money from bonds.

It usually works like clockwork, at least it has the last eight budget cycles since the program was launched, says the state historical society's Dave Nicandri. Never once, in previous recessions or good times, have the advisory committee's recommendations been altered, let alone rejected. The grants are so heavily peer reviewed that they have sailed through, he says. They are scrutinized before they get to a vote. According to the Office of Financial Management over $41 million in grants have been awarded since 1997.

But not this time. The 29 projects selected this year have hit a brick wall. Gregoire has decided not to approve any HCPF projects for the 2011-13 biennium, according to OFM. Part of the dilemma, according to spokesman Glenn Kuper, is that the state's debt limit for general obligation bonds is way down because it's tied to the state's revenues, also down. So projects are competing for a shrinking pot of money. Gregoire's proposed capital budget for the next biennium is $1.2 billion less than the 2009-11 budget ($2.1 billion vs. $3.3 billion). And while OFM says funding preservation and renovation projects were part of the guidelines for what to fund, this program didn't make the cut.

That wasn't obvious in the budget plans released last week because these expected grants were simply absent, but subsequent calls confirmed that they had been written out of the governor's budget. Grant applicants who had made the final cut were notified late last week that the program has been chopped, unless the legislature decides to restore it. 

So, the Seattle Theater Group will not get money for improvements to the historic Moore Theater ($531,259); the Museum of History and Industry will not get funds to fix plumbing and ventilation in its new museum space ($1 million), the Seattle Department of Transportation won't get additional funds for restoring King Street Station ($700,000), the Phinney Neighborhood Association won't receive a grant to renovate its historic community center ($994,950), SAM won't get help with new storage space for its collection ($30,890), the Center for Wooden Boats will miss out on money to build its new education center at South Lake Union park ($1,000,000), and Historic Seattle will lose restoration funds for the landmark Washington Hall in the Central District ($470,000).

And the list goes on for projects all over the state: the ship Lady Washington in Gray's Harbor, Tacoma's historic granary at Fort Nisqually, the Officer's Row housing at Ft. Vancouver, the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, the Blue Mountain Heritage Society's Smith Hollow School, the Maryhill Museum near Goldendale, Snoqualmie's railway museum, these and many more will lose out under the current plan.

The money is an investment in bricks-and-mortar, and often unglamorous updating and fixing of plaster and timber not visible to the public eye. The money does come with some strings. To qualify, projects have to raise $2 or more dollars for every state dollar invested. In other words, the state's help is only perhaps a third or a quarter of the total cost. The idea is to help groups leverage a small capital investment by the state into funding from other private and public sources. Projects range in size. The Clymer Museum in Ellensburg requested only $8,000. Big grants are capped at $1 million.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is alarmed. Field director Chris Moore says via email:

"Suspension of the Heritage Capital Projects Grant program has a fourfold effect: it is a blow to heritage issues statewide, as many local museums and historical societies actively preserve those buildings and institutions that tell Washington’s story; it affects economic development, as the value of grant awards are essentially tripled with the required 2:1 local match — all of which goes into creating construction-related jobs; it slows heritage tourism, a vital component of the state’s overall tourism industry; and from a sustainability standpoint, it deters groups from engaging in historic preservation work — work that is by definition a sustainable practice in that historic material is retained and repaired, rather than replaced and sent to the landfill."

Despite tough times, capital projects and big spending do continue in Gregoire's budget. Plenty of roads and new facilities will be built. There's $1 million for expanding a veteran's golf course in Lakewood.

But some of Gregoire's choices have raised eyebrows (to say the least) in the heritage community. She's also cut two popular statewide historic preservation programs, one that helps fight sprawl and preserve rural areas by restoring historic barns (Barn Again, $300,000) and one that refurbishes the state's amazing inventory of historic county courthouses ($2-5 million). Both offer highly sought-after competitive grants.

Yet, despite preservation being a stated preference, Gregoire's capital budget includes $6.3 million in bond money to demolish a state building on the Capitol Campus that is on the National Historic Register and highly regarded by advocates of saving important mid-century modern architecture.

Lest people think that historic preservation is not a "core" government service, it is interesting to note that the state's official view has been enshrined as policy by legislative declaration (see RCW 27.34.200). From 1983, it is worth reading today:

The legislature hereby finds that the promotion, enhancement, perpetuation, and use of structures, sites, districts, buildings, and objects of historic, archaeological, architectural, and cultural significance is desirable in the interest of the public pride and general welfare of the people of the state; and the legislature further finds that the economic, cultural, and aesthetic standing of the state can be maintained and enhanced by protecting the heritage of the state and by preventing the destruction or defacement of these assets; therefore, it is hereby declared by the legislature to be the public policy and in the public interest of the state to designate, preserve, protect, enhance, and perpetuate those structures, sites, districts, buildings, and objects which reflect outstanding elements of the state's historic, archaeological, architectural, or cultural heritage, for the inspiration and enrichment of the citizens of the state.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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