Speech | Des Moines, Iowa | May 23, 2011

Grow Your Main Street: National Main Street Conference 2011

Opening Plenary Remarks

Thank you. It is great to be back once again at the National Main Street Conference. I want to recognize and thank Doug Loescher for his continued leadership of the National Trust Main Street Center. With the decades of experience in downtown revitalization and community sustainability that he brings to his work, Doug has been adept at leading the Main Street Center through changing times, especially as he works now with our Senior Director of Parternships, Valecia Crisafulli. We are grateful for their continuing leadership — and that of the entire Main Street Center staff.

I also want to thank Governor Terry Branstad for his appearance here today and for his long-standing support for Main Street in Iowa.

About two months ago I came to Des Moines to join the Governor in saluting the 25th anniversary of Main Street Iowa. The Governor — in an earlier political stint in the governor’s mansion — actually started the state’s Main Street program and it was only fitting that he was on hand to help celebrate a quarter-century of excellence. There was a lot to celebrate in Iowa that evening!

In it’s over 25-year existence, Main Street Iowa — under the leadership of my good friends Thom Guzman and Jane Seaton — has shown itself to be one of the most effective Main Street programs in the country. $1 Billion in private investment in 25 years is an impressive benchmark. Leadership is important, but that local network is just as critical to ensuring strong and long-lasting civic and political support at the local, state and even national level.

And I’m pleased to report that Iowa is an example of the remarkable and transformative work taking place on Main Streets all across the country. Even in difficult economic times, your work shows what is possible when people come together to improve the places where we live, work, and play.

Main Street is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but it is all about the work in more than 1,000 local communities undertaken by people who care about places that matter to them. We need you — and the network of people like you in every state — in order to build support for Main Street’s preservation-based sustainable development.

These are difficult times on Capitol Hill, in the statehouses, and in city halls all across the country. In response, some want to wipe away government support in areas they don’t see as essential. We can argue about what caused our economic problems of the past few years, but I believe we can all agree that in town after town and state after state, we’ve been able to show that Main Street is a force for sustainable community development — a force that creates jobs, grows local economies, and allows us to successfully live and work in a way that recognizes our responsibilities toward passing on a healthy environment to our children.

We need a strong Main Street network to help us tell that story effectively in the statehouse and city hall, just as we need a strong Main Street network to build support for sustainable development in communities across the country.

I don’t have to tell you that even our best Main Street programs can come under attack by budget cutters who don’t understand the impact your work brings to local tax bases and to the critical need to make our communities more livable. The National Trust has been working with so many of you again this year to get the Main Street message out to our governors and state legislators, and I thank you for what you’ve done.

The good news is that Main Street has a great story to tell about how we build and maintain sustainable communities.

The heart of the Main Street approach is historic preservation — taking what we have from our past — what makes our cities and towns unique — and reusing it as a foundation for the future. We all know that Main Street is economic development. But Main Street is so much more. It is sustainable development in every sense of that word, grounded in preservation. And that is a good thing for our communities.

At last year’s conference I told you that Rutgers University has been undertaking a series of studies to determine preservation’s economic impact as measured through the federal tax credit for historic rehabilitation — a credit that many of your property owners use when they rehabilitate historic buildings. That work has just been updated, and I’m pleased to tell you that the news remains positive for Main Street.

We have known for some time at the National Trust that historic preservation is an extraordinarily good economic stimulus.

But Rutgers found this year that on a dollar for dollar basis, the type of rehabilitation work that you are doing on your Main Streets out-produces more traditional stimulus strategies such as new construction, public works projects and manufacturing incentives.

We’ve talked for years at the National Trust about how historic preservation = jobs. The economists at Rutgers found that the more than 2 million jobs created due to the historic credit have been created at a cost of less than $10,000 per job. In comparison, the recent federal stimulus bill created jobs at a cost of more than $200,000 per job. Historic preservation and Main Street not only equals jobs, but they are highly cost effective!

Another important aspect of the jobs picture: Rutgers found that investment in rehabilitating historic buildings is taking place in moderate and low-income area where we need investment. Since 2002, about two-thirds of all historic tax credit projects have been located in moderate and low-income areas — right where investment is needed.

The Rutgers study also found that historic preservation investment stays in the local economy. Money invested in your Main Street stays in your community. Three-quarters of the economic impacts of rehabilitation stays in the local communities and states where the projects are located. This reflects the fact that labor and materials for rehabilitation tend to be hired or purchased locally. It certainly helps jump-start local economies.

Demonstrating the economic value of saving places is integral to what we do at the National Trust. Many developers — and even many involved with Main Street — haven’t thought of historic preservation as being such a strong economic driver. Likewise, many people today have missed the connection between our historic buildings and the country’s need for environmental sustainability. But in the past few years, we’ve also focused on how old buildings not only mean new money…but they can also be a positive part of our national conversation around sustainability.

Our existing buildings — like the ones found on every Main Street in America — are one of our greatest renewable resources. Americans already embrace as common sense the need to recycle aluminum cans, glass and newspapers. Why not recycle buildings?

As we think about buildings in the US, we need to focus on waste. Where do these buildings end up? Well, many of them end up in landfill. A few years back Brookings released a study estimating that there are 300 billion square feet of buildings in this country; they also estimated that by 2030 we would demolish and replace 82 billion square feet – over a quarter of our existing building stock and an astonishing amount of waste.

When we reuse buildings, we avoid many of the impacts that would occur if we were to demolish the existing building and build something new. When you are talking with local officials in your community about reusing buildings on Main Street, begin to talk about the issue in terms of avoided impacts. By reusing buildings on Main Street, we reduce the use of new, natural resource intensive materials. We reduce energy and other carbon dioxide emissions. And we reduce other toxic emissions associated with building industry.

One again, Main Street Iowa has been at the forefront of this issue through its Iowa Green Streets initiative. In places like West Union, Iowa, we’ve seen the state program and the National Trust come together to help the community revitalize itself with an emphasis on economic AND environmental sustainability.

The “Complete Streets” program ensures that all forms of transportation are respected on Main Street — not just the automobile. District energy efforts pool the resources of a historic neighborhood to bring clean, renewable ground source energy – in this case, shallow geothermal wells – to the buildings along Main Street. It is a remarkable vision that puts a real face and facts on how Main Street can make our communities more livable.

So when we talk about sustainable communities, we generally focus on economic and environmental sustainability. But I have a personal story that also illustrates how our work on Main Streets builds sustainability across generations.

You heard a story earlier today about Franklin, Tennessee — a former Great American Main Street award winner. Both my parents grew up in Franklin, and my father spent his summers selling tickets at the Franklin Theatre — and then sneaking upstairs to watch the movies from the 1930s. Like other residents of Franklin, he was concerned in recent years when the theatre building was left to decay.

But in Franklin, the Main Street organization and the local preservation group banded together and bought the theatre before it could be demolished. Just four months ago, my father traveled to Franklin to watch the unveiling of the new marquee. And next month, he’ll be in Franklin again as the community celebrates the reopening of the fully restored Franklin Theatre — once again a proud landmark on Main Street. And he’s been there because he understands the importance of keeping and reusing places like the Franklin Theatre from the past — sustaining them for use by his grandchildren and the grandchildren of others who care about this special place.

We’re excited about these new visions for Main Streets all across the country. At the National Trust, we’re going through our own re-visioning process, under the leadership of a new president, Stephanie Meeks, who you’ll meet on Wednesday. Main Street is an important part of the organization – and the preservation movement’s – past and future

As the National Trust looks at its future, we will continue to support and inform the leadership of this network, so it can continue to grow and thrive. We will continue to serve as advocates for smart Main Street/preservation policies. We will look for ways to empower and engage the Main Street network with more education opportunities. And finally, we will save places to show the power of Main Street.

The Trust has been a leader in this effort for 30+ years…but we haven’t done it alone.

One of the individuals who has been an intellectual and philosophical leader of this movement is today’s keynote speaker.

Ed McMahon holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC where he is nationally known as an inspiring and thought provoking speaker and leading authority on topics related to sustainable development, land conservation, smart growth, and historic preservation.

As the Senior Fellow for Sustainable Development McMahon leads ULI’s worldwide efforts to conduct research and educational activities related to environmentally sensitive development policies and practices.

Before joining the Urban Land Institute in 2004, McMahon spent 14 years as the Vice President and Director of Land Use Planning for The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia where he helped to protect more than 5 million acres of land of historic or natural significance. He is also the co-founder and former President of Scenic America, a national non-profit organization devoted to protecting America’s scenic landscapes. Before that, he taught law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center for 9 years, and served in the U.S. Army, both at home and abroad.

McMahon is the author or co-author of 15 books and over 200 articles. During the past 20 years McMahon has drafted numerous local land use plans and ordinances. He has organized successful efforts to acquire and protect urban parkland, wilderness areas, and other conservation properties.

McMahon serves on several advisory boards and commissions including: the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland, The Governor’s Institute for Community Design and the Orton Family Foundation.

McMahon has an M.A. in Urban Studies from the University of Alabama, Birmingham and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law School. He and his wife live in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Please join me in welcoming Ed McMahon.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
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