Speech | Austin, Texas | October 27, 2010

National Preservation Conference 2010

Stephanie K. Meeks Opening Plenary Remarks

Thank you Mtamanika for that wonderful introduction. Before we get started, I’d like to also thank those who made this year’s conference possible.

Mayor Leffingwell, thank you for hosting us in your vibrant and dynamic city.

Our honorary chair, Laura Bush: thank you for being with us and for being such a wonderful champion of preservation.

Our conference co-chairs, Dealey Herndon and Gay Ratliff, thank you for working so hard to bring us all together here.

Our longstanding sponsors General Services Administration and National Park Service: thank you for your financial support.

Our conference partner Next American City Inc., a great new sponsor who is introducing us to a broader and younger audience.

Our keynote speaker, Paul Goldberger, for sharing his knowledge and experience.

I’d also like to recognize this year’s fantastic class of diversity and Texas scholars.

And finally, we’re fortunate to have with us some talented young people from Roskruge Bilingual Middle School in Tucson Arizona. Sabrina Garay, Adrian Ruiz, Paulina Gomez, Jesus Ortega, their teacher, Eric Flewelling and their principal, Jose Olivas would you please stand up?

These students were finalists in a national competition to design the “school of the future.” They were the only finalists to propose rehabbing an existing building rather than building a new school from scratch. They came up with some very creative ideas for greening their Spanish Baroque style school, which has been a cornerstone of their community for nearly 100 years.

We want to commend you for realizing that “going green” doesn’t have to mean throwing out the old and building something new. I hope we’ll be hearing from you at a National Preservation Conference 20 years from now.

And Eric and Jose, we want to thank you for encouraging them in this effort. It takes leaders like you to shape the preservationists of the future, and we are grateful.

Thank you all again for coming. And hello to all of you watching today’s plenary session online or following us on twitter at hashtag presconf. We’re delighted to have you with us.

As many of you know, I’ve spent much of the past four months traveling around the country listening to all of you and your peers in National Trust offices, statewide and local partner offices, Main Street organizations and other partner groups nationwide.

I appreciate your time and all your good thoughts. I’ve found that some key themes emerged again and again in my conversations and I’d like to talk about those today. They are:

  • The need to make preservation more accessible
  • The need to make preservation more visible
  • And the need to ensure that preservation is fully funded.

We’ve been talking a lot at the National Trust about what we can do to advance our common agenda in these core areas.

We believe that by addressing these themes together, we will be able to create the sort of visible, dynamic, broadly inclusive movement we all hope historic preservation will be and need for it to be in the next 20, 50 or even 100 years.

As many of you know, I’ve spent most of my professional career at The Nature Conservancy. I’ve also been an active member of the National Trust most of my adult life.

I believe conservation and preservation are essentially synonymous. One focuses on the natural environment and one on the built environment, but both address the fundamental need to keep all the essential pieces of our heritage intact.

Those pieces can be remarkable natural landscapes like Yellowstone, or cultural touchstones like President Lincoln’s Cottage. Or they can be the places that matter in each of our neighborhoods, such as Austin’s Paramount Theater. Places like these are fundamental to who we are AND to who we want to be.

In my own case, I remember what a powerful experience it was as a child to visit the dugout in Kansas where my Norwegian ancestors home-steaded and spent 12 years of their lives. As an aside, when I was at Fairfax Hospital for the birth of each of my three children, I would think of my great, great, great, great grandmother who bore four children in that underground space, and think, “if she could do it there, I can do it here!” It was really an inspiration and comfort to me.

Places like these are tremendously powerful. They remind us of all the dreams and disappointments of those who have gone before and give us courage to imagine our own future and what we hope it will be.

They help us tell our stories, as individuals and as Americans. Walking through a place like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which I had a chance to do a few months ago, you can’t help but feel a connection to the people who lived there, and all the people who have come to this country as immigrants. It provides a very powerful backdrop to the ongoing immigration policy issues that are so present in our national dialogue today.

That sense of connection—to our collective past and to one another—is so important. It speaks to our need for community, which is nearly as primal in us as the need for food and water. If we lose that connection, we lose something fundamental to our very survival.

So, in a very real way, the preservation movement is keeping the American story alive, in all its richness and diversity.

We all share a piece of that story. Yet too many people don’t know or understand what it means to protect it. They see preservation as something removed from their daily lives or not reflective of their cultural heritage. Or they get shut out by the sometimes complicated and expensive process of securing protection for a historic site.

So that’s my first theme today: the need to make preservation more accessible.

The preservation movement has made remarkable progress over the past 40 years. Over my shoulder, you’ll see a few benchmarks.

These are extraordinary results. They’re a testament to the work that all of you, and people like you, have done to get us to the point where we are today.

Our challenge now, is to build a broader base--to make preservation an even broader grassroots movement.

For example, of those National Register sites, only 3 percent represent America’s diverse cultural groups. We need to bring these important constituencies more fully into the fold, so that the National Register better reflects America’s rich and diverse heritage.

We need to bring in community organizers working to revitalize their neighborhoods. We need to attract and inspire people living in historic homes. We need to bring in people like our young friends from Roskruge Bilingual Middle School, who recognize the connection between environmental conservation and historic preservation.

We need at least 1 in 10 American adults professing their support of preservation, the way they now support environmental conservation.

At the National Trust, we’ve begun exploring a few ideas to tackle this challenge. We’re working on providing free memberships to students studying historic preservation. Our diversity scholars this year are the 18th annual class, and the program is still going strong. We’ve brought together Latino and Pacific-Islander preservationists to find out how we can support them in protecting the places that matter to them.

And we’ve worked with the African American preservation community and our wide network of state and local groups to identify, map and protect important African American historic sites. So far that inventory has yielded about 7,000 places nationwide, and we expect to find thousands more. With help from the Ford Foundation and the 1772 Foundation, we’re creating what we believe is the only national database to recognize these typically overlooked but incredibly important touchstones of our history.

We’re also exploring how to build on that great experience. One idea we’re investigating is a grassroots national survey that would engage people nationwide in identifying places that matter to them.

Our thinking here has been inspired by Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. It’s been going on for 111 years and draws thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas to gather data on local bird populations.

The bird count works because it makes conservation accessible to everyday people. It encourages them to notice their environment. And it engages them in the work of protecting it.

We need to engage people in the work of preservation in a similar way. Our hope is that a national citizen survey could begin to accomplish this goal by encouraging people to notice their own history and the history of their community. And then, hopefully, get involved to protect it.

The survey would also provide us with an opportunity to tackle the second theme I wanted to discuss today: the need to do a better job of making the case for the benefits of preservation—both the tangible economic and environmental benefits, and the intangible benefits that come from a strong sense of place.

We know we have a fantastic story to tell. Again, the slide behind me has a few statistics. These figures come from a Rutgers University study sponsored by the National Trust’s own Community Investment Corporation, which celebrates 10 years of success this year providing tax credit financing. Their efforts to invest close to half a billion dollars in historic communities have helped to create more than 23,000 jobs and generate $836 million in salaries, wages and business income. I think that deserves a round of applause.

Tax credits, heritage tourism, Main Street revitalization programs—these things work. They produce real, measurable economic benefits.

But people aren’t getting that message. Too often, preservationists are perceived as the ones to say ‘no, you can’t do that,’ rather than the ones who want to jump in and find ways to save important local places.

The National Trust is committed to tackling this challenge. We’re commissioning new research, reaching out to new partners and exploring a major visibility campaign to create stronger awareness for historic preservation. We don’t know exactly what the campaign will look like yet, but I wanted to tell you tonight, we are going to tackle the issue of making our work more visible and more broadly understood.

My hope is that by making our work more accessible and more visible we can begin to address the final theme I wanted to touch on tonight: and that is…money.

It’s no secret that we need to attract and maintain higher levels of funding for local, state and national preservation priorities. Again, the slide behind me provides an overview of the current state of affairs.

Dedicated funds are being raided, and even popular federal programs like Preserve America and Save America’s Treasures were targeted for elimination in the Administration’s 2011 budget.

Along with many of you, the National Trust has been sounding the alarm on Capitol Hill about the importance of these funding sources, and we are cautiously optimistic that funding will be restored in the coming year.

But, the funding crunch is serious enough that America is losing ground in protecting places that matter.

Now we know that Federal and State government can’t provide all the resources we need. The National Trust is exploring ways that we might be able to address this gap. Earlier this week, I sat down with leaders from several preservation organizations to talk about the role a national revolving loan fund might play. While we still have a lot of details to work out, we’re inspired by the notion that a revolving fund would give us the capacity to step in when a national landmark, or a local place with national significance, is about to be lost.

We’re still talking about what it will take to make such a fund happen, and I will report back to you in the year ahead. And I’d like to continue hearing from you – your ideas on how best to attract the levels of funding we need to address the challenges of preservation we have today.

Indeed, my hope is that we can continue talking about all these issues and ideas. We have an incredibly strong foundation in place, and I believe we have an opportunity now to take the preservation movement to the next level.

In that spirit, I’d like to propose a challenge. In 2016, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act.

Over the next five years, I believe we can make significant progress in the areas of accessibility, visibility and funding.

By 2016 I hope we’ll be well on our way to achieving the same level of affiliation as the conservation community now enjoys—one in 10 American adults, or roughly 35 million people, identifying themselves as concerned about preserving our cultural heritage.

I hope our work will be so well known that our Preservation Conference rivals that of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild event. In 2009, it drew more than 27,000 people. The opening plenary session was held at Chase Field in Phoenix. It may take us more than five years, but I dream of that day when it takes a stadium to contain all the people who want to attend this gathering.

And finally, let’s work toward full and robust funding for the Historic Preservation Fund, Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and other important programs.

It will take all of us working together to make historic preservation the visible, dynamic, broadly inclusive movement we all know it can be.

On a personal level, thank you for your hospitality and for the warm welcome I’ve received in my first few months here.

I’ve had a chance to visit some remarkable places, from Drayton Hall outside Charleston, SC, to a John Lautner contemporary masterpiece in LA; from the Main Street of Grapevine, Texas to the historic Lower Downtown of Denver.

I’ve seen the work of Preservation Dallas to survey historic neighborhoods and the City of LA to survey the entire 500-square miles of their sprawling metropolis.

I’ve seen great programs to get kids involved in preservation from grade school through Student Conservation Association internships and the ground-breaking work of the College of the Building Arts in Charleston to create a 4-year degree program in cultural restoration techniques.

Through all of this, I have been tremendously inspired – by your commitment, ingenuity, hard work and by all the beautiful buildings, places, stories and history that you have successfully saved.

I am thoroughly convinced that the best days of the preservation movement are still ahead of us. And I’m proud to be here with all of you doing this important work.

Thank you.


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

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