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A Civic Gift

Preservationists reclaim history, revive local economies

October 5, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  Historic preservation is particularly strong in Michigan’s cities, which increasingly rely on rehabilitating historic structures as a primary strategy for attracting companies, workers, and residents.

The Landmark Inn, one of the Upper Peninsula’s finest hotels, stands at the summit of the highest bluff overlooking Marquette’s harbor. If you visit the busy, dark-paneled lobby or spend an evening in the pub, you’d likely find out that in the decades after it opened in 1930 the hotel provided Duke Ellington, Jimmy Stewart and other notable guests virtually the same experience.

You’d also likely learn that the renovation of the Landmark Inn was an essential economic signal for other investors in Marquette. Since 1996 tens of millions of dollars have been spent to rehabilitate buildings for offices, homes, and entertainment, transforming Marquette’s downtown into one of the most active of any small city in the state.

By no means is Marquette an isolated example, according to A Civic Gift: Historic Preservation, Community Reinvestment, and Smart Growth in Michigan, a new study by the Michigan Land Use Institute. The report, which was prepared under contract for the State Historic Preservation Office, documents how entrepreneurs, investors, and insightful communities across Michigan are preserving historic assets and reaping greater economic activity and a higher quality of life.

Revived Downtowns, Restored Destinations
A Civic Gift finds that this trend is particularly strong in the state’s cities, which increasingly rely on rehabilitating historic structures as a primary strategy for attracting companies, workers, and residents back to urban business districts and neighborhoods.
In Grand Rapids, for instance, the citizen-led revival of the Wealthy Theater and its surrounding neighborhood reflects the community’s commitment to historic preservation that has made Michigan’s second largest city a showcase for urban revitalization. It is one of just two Michigan cities that experienced an increase in population in recent years.

A unique partnership between the City of Jackson and Consumers Energy saved one of the country’s grand post offices, constructed a new corporate headquarters, brought hundreds of workers back to the city’s center, and stimulated a once-stagnant downtown’s dramatic revival.

It took a Detroit Symphony Orchestra bassoonist and other citizens nearly two decades to permanently save Orchestra Hall. Today, the hall is at the center of a whirlwind of urban revitalization in the neighborhoods surrounding it.
And in Allegan, it took the loss of a historic county courthouse to convince the community that it should save the magnificent, Civil War-era buildings that today make the town strikingly unique and attractive, as well as a tourist destination.

Indeed, Michigan’s citizens and millions of its visitors are eager to experience the state’s incredibly rich history. Across the state, icons of Michigan’s colorful past — from lighthouses and ships to mining towns and sites along the Underground Railroad — have been restored and now bolster tourism, the state’s second-largest industry.

Saving Communities, Building Economies
The report also finds that historic preservation helps curb the sprawl that is draining cities and ruining Michigan’s countryside. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s economic program includes new steps she is ready to take to both rebuild cities and stem runaway suburban development. Historic preservation is central to both ideas.

In August 2003 Gov. Granholm’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of prominent civic, political, and business leaders, recommended more than 150 steps the state should take to direct the engines of growth inward toward cities instead of outward toward rural areas. Included in the panel’s report, which was endorsed by Gov. Granholm and delivered to the Legislature, are a host of specific recommendations for new public policy that speeds the renovation and reuse of historic, downtown buildings.

Earlier, in April 2003, Gov. Granholm honored five outstanding preservation projects with the state’s first Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, “Whether you are a business that preserves a historic structure, or a family that turns a former eyesore into a wonderful gem of a home, preservation does more than just save buildings — it saves communities,” she said.

Economic statistics confirm the governor’s reasoning. According to a report published by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, rehabilitation projects added $1.7 billion and 20,252 jobs to Michigan’s economy and returned almost $32 million in once-abandoned or dilapidated properties to local tax rolls since 1971.
A Civic Gift also concluded that a concerted effort by the state to encourage much more restoration activity would dramatically increase those already encouraging numbers. Historic restoration generates construction activity that spreads an economic wave through traditional downtowns and out into neighborhoods. It helps local economies by relying on local suppliers and workers. And the wide variety of workspaces, housing choices, and entertainment venues that historically restored downtowns and neighborhoods offer yield vibrant, hip cities that attract young workers and families.

The report found that Michigan’s elected and appointed leaders need to be more proactive in encouraging entrepreneurs, communities, and investors to rebuild the state’s historic resources for modern uses. The opportunities for adaptive reuse of old buildings are manifest in almost every Michigan town.

Just as Michigan assists large companies, it should also encourage citizens and small businesses — and not just the heroic ones — to undertake historic restoration projects.
The Institute’s report recommends four crucial shifts in Michigan’s approach to historic preservation.

First, local and state governments must better inventory historic buildings and sites and help developers identify those with the potential for successful rehabilitation.

Second, local and state governments must help developers navigate more quickly the permitting, regulatory, zoning, financing, construction, and marketing steps preservation projects require.

Third, local and state governments should invest in rehabilitating historic buildings for their own offices instead of building new ones. Officials should view the reuse of historic buildings as opportunities to help their state fight sprawl while performing their duties in education, transportation, housing, health care, emergency services, and economic development.

Fourth, state and local governments must provide the kinds of financial support, tax relief, technical guidance, and other economic incentives for historic preservation projects that they do for large companies.

Other States Are More Competitive
The Institute’s research indicates that Michigan needs to be more competitive in the historic preservation arena. Other states are already using innovative techniques to boost historic preservation and economic competitiveness.
Out West, New Mexico’s Historic Preservation Division makes below-market-rate loans for the restoration of certified historic buildings, while Colorado’s State Historical Fund annually spends $15 million from gambling tax revenues to support preservation projects. California’s State Historic Building Board actively facilitates the efficacy, energy efficiency, and safety of historic preservation projects.

Closer to home, Renaissance Kentucky, a consortium of banks and state agencies, helps rehabilitate more than 100 downtowns with loans and grants. Even local governments are engaged: In New Jersey, for example, Somerset County invests approximately $1 million a year in preservation.

Support the Heroes
The opportunities for adaptive reuse of old buildings are manifest in almost every Michigan town. Tapping the past as a resource for the future requires communities and the state to collaborate on a much more focused strategy of economic development grants specifically targeted to historic preservation, as well as on tax incentives, public education, and more readily available access to experts in design, finance, construction, and marketing.

To date, the majority of successful historic restoration projects in Michigan have been undertaken by courageous entrepreneurs willing to take a chance. Public policy that makes it easier and less risky, this report concludes, has the potential to vastly increase the number of people able to take on historic preservation projects.

The reasons for doing so are self-evident. Michigan’s history is as rich as the vast natural resources that first lured French explorers here in the 17th century. Ever since then, the state’s population has swelled with ambitious people who not only built thriving towns and the railroads and highways that connect them, but also new industries that completely changed the world. They have left the state a matchless, historic legacy cast in steel, bronze, plaster, brick, wood, and glass.

People care about old buildings because they reflect shared memories and a sense of continuity, which are the essence of community. Updating historic buildings for modern applications generates economic activity precisely because of this intangible human response. It’s this simple and this promising for Michigan in the 21st century: People like to live, work, and play where history prospers.

Keith Schneider is a journalist and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. Charlene Crowell, a journalist and historian, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy specialist in Lansing. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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