Cost Effective Preservation and Fiscal Responsibility

A couple of times each year I get to attend the awards ceremony of a state Main Street program somewhere, most recently in Raton, New Mexico. Under director Rich Williams, the New Mexico Main Street Program has become one of the best in the country. The program is particularly strong at providing very high level technical assistance to Main Street communities. The office in Santa Fe is a two person (although soon to become three) operation consisting of Rich and his “handle every detail imaginable” administrative program coordinator, Julie Blanke.

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The technical assistance is provided through a cadre of contract consultants. While this isn’t unique to New Mexico, Rich has managed to assemble very competent people with incredible experience in Main Street on a national level. Included among these are Stephanie Redman, former assistant director of the National Main Street Center in Washington, Keith Kjelstrom, who at one time headed the California Main Street Program, Elmo Baca who himself earlier ran the New Mexico program and was a preservation fellow at the American Academy in Rome, and Lani Lott former Main Street Manager in California who now operates her consulting practice out of Arizona. I’ve known, worked with, and learned from all four of these professionals for years. In addition to this talent a half dozen other experts in a variety of fields are part of the assistance available to New Mexico Main Street communities. I don’t know of another state where this much experienced talent is so readily available to local programs.But this entry isn’t really about the New Mexico Main Street Program. Instead it is about an erroneous argument that I hear from someone almost every week — “That historic preservation stuff might be fine if you have a lot of money, but it’s all so expensive, who could afford it.” Two of the award winners in Raton demonstrate what nonsense that claim really is.

Example 1: The Colfax County Society for Art, History, and Archaeology. This sixty year old organization is better known locally as the Raton Museum. When in 2004 the museum’s board recognized they were out of space, they made the decision to acquire a large vacant building in downtown Raton. So they held fund raising events, did excellent planning, worked hard, and hired the right professionals to assist them. The result? A wonderful facility for the museum where it can both benefit from the activity in downtown Raton, but also importantly directly contribute to revitalization efforts there. The cost? Around $60 a square foot! What can you build today for $60 a square foot? Maybe a quonset hut on a concrete slab decorated with z-brick and Styrofoam beams. Instead they have a wonderful facility to house their collections as well as traveling exhibits. (while I was there, by the way, the exhibit was the New Deal Treasures, photographs of WPA and CCC projects – buildings, structures, and art – created in New Mexico during the depression).

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How did they rehabilitate these historic buildings so cost effectively? Three things helped: 1) they bought the building at the right price; 2) they put in thousands of man/woman hours of hard labor scraping, painting, sanding, and hauling; and 3) they hired an architect and general contractor who knew what they were doing. The result? A great museum building at a price per square foot you probably would have to pay to build a new garage for your car.

Example 2: The Main Street Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. This annual award went to the City of Santa Rosa (population 2500) and Guadalupe County (population less than 5000 including the 2500 in Santa Rosa). The school board decided they needed a new middle school so made the decision to abandon the 20,000 square foot facility which was originally built as the high school. Faced with seeing a large, vacant white-elephant in the middle of the downtown, Mayor Joseph Campos and city manager Timothy Dodge decided that was not an acceptable alternative. They met with the school district and the county commission and devised a plan to turn the school into the city/county administration building. This is such an obvious solution you’d think lots of places would be doing it – after all there are lots of vacated historic schools. Alas, it isn’t that common. Far more frequent is when city government and county government don’t even talk to each other, let alone cooperate on capital investment projects. And involving the third level of local government – the school district – is rarer still.

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When I congratulated Mayor Campos on the success of the partnership he said, “Well, we are small. When you’re as small as we are you have to cooperate like that.” But Mayor Campos is wrong – in spite of being small and with scarce resources, the vast majority of places don’t do what Santa Rosa and Guadalupe County did.

The project maintained the most important historic features of the building while adapting it to meet the 21st century needs of city and county government. The total cost of the project? Less than $420,000 – or just over $20/square foot. YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT – JUST OVER $20/SQUARE FOOT.

Now, certainly, the building had to be in pretty good shape when the city and county took it over, and not every vacated school could be put back into use that inexpensively. But here’s the point – Virtually every horror story about the costs of historic preservation are of the vignette version. “Well I know of a project that cost a trillion dollars.” And it’s not that there aren’t sometimes hideously expensive historic preservation projects. But it is nearly always the ridiculously expensive vignettes we hear about, not the extraordinarily cost effective projects like the Santa Rosa school. (By the way, the expensive horror stories in historic preservation are nearly always attributable some combination of three variables: 1) a building that had already suffered from years of deferred maintenance; 2) a general contractor who didn’t know what the hell he was doing; and/or 3) an architect inexperienced in historic preservation who insisted on putting his/her stamp on the building instead of letting the building tell what it wanted to be).

Now Mayor Campos is also a state legislator, and I don’t know if he’s a Republican or Democrat and don’t care. But politicians of all stripes ought to be concerned with fiscal responsibility, with prudent use of scarce taxpayers’ dollars, with stretching public resources. Mayor Campos and his allies in Santa Rosa did exactly that — through the adaptive reuse of an important historic building. THAT is what fiscal responsibility is all about.

And Santa Rosa hasn’t stopped there. The former County Court House is undergoing restoration.

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And the city has recently acquired a wonderful warehouse structure that it saw was too important to be left to deteriorate.

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So don’t leave unchallenged the spurious claim that historic preservation is too expensive. For every example of the out-of-control restoration budget, there are dozens of stories like Raton and Santa Rosa where smart people are being “conservative” in the best sense of the word — conserving heritage assets and conserving scarce financial resources.