Historic Preservation as Economic Development

Hurray for the Economic Development Administration (EDA) of the US Department of Commerce! They have taken a GIANT leap forward in refuting the long-held belief in some quarters that communities have to choose between historic preservation and economic development.

That was always a false choice, of course, but a commonly held one.

But there is nowhere better from which enlightenment should flow than the EDA.

What has happened? Well this year for the first time the EDA has added to their annual awardsa category called Excellence in Historic Preservation-led Strategies to Enhance Economic Development. This award takes its place along side existing categories such as Excellence in Rural Economic Development, Excellence in Technology-led Economic Development and Excellence in Enhancing Regional Competitiveness.

Why has this happened? Well, I don’t know for sure, but here’s my speculation. In 2006 First Lady Laura Bush and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) held the Preserve America Summit.

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An underlying purpose of the summit was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (passed in 1966) and to look forward to what the future role of the Federal Government in historic preservation should be. And to do this the ACHP organized 11 groups of experts on a variety of topics to address the issues and make recommendations. Each of the working groups was co-chaired by someone from the Federal Government (nearly always a senior official) and someone from the private or non-profit sector. One of the groups was called Using Historic Properties as Economic Assets.

The Federal co-chair for the group was Jim Yeager, Chief of Staff of the Economic Development Administration and the group was facilitated by Sandy Baruah, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.

I frankly don’t know what interest, if any, either Mr. Yeager or Assistant Secretary Buruah had in historic preservation prior to the Summit. But what they both did do was listen diligently and intently. And I believe they clearly saw the role historic preservation could play in local economies. The working group provided the Advisory Council with a number of important recommendations.

I particularly like the title they’ve given the award — Preservation-led Strategies. That suggests that preservation isn’t the end, but the means, and in this case the means of effective economic development. The nominations were evaluated on how effectively they used regional historic assets to advance innovative economic development strategies. This award by EDA is one of the first specific actions that a Federal agency has undertaken as a result of the Summit, and they should be heartily congratulated for it.

And by the way, the first winner of the Award is the Main Street Project of Silver City, New Mexico. Main Street is the most cost effective form of economic development of any kind in the country. And Silver City’s program represents the kind of bottom up, self-help economic development that has made Main Street a success for nearly 30 years.

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So congratulations Silver City and heartfelt thanks to the Economic Development Administration and Assistant Secretary Buruah.