Speech | Asheville, North Carolina | September 20, 2012

Preservation North Carolina Annual Conference 2012

Stephanie K. Meeks, Marion S. Covington Keynote Address

I would like to thank our hosts at Preservation North Carolina. You are fortunate to have some tremendous leaders -- Eddie Belk, the current board chair at Preservation North Caorlina, and of course, your president, Myrick Howard.

You know how much Myrick has done to promote preservation here in North Carolina, but what you might not know that he is also an important thought leader nationally on revolving funds, real estate intervention and redevelopment. He’s been a great help to us at the National Trust.

His contributions are reflective of the very strong preservation community here, led by your state historic preservation office and Ramona Bartos.

The Trust has more partners in North Carolina than any state except Texas, and I’d like to take a minute to recognize them:

  • Alliance for Historic Hillsborough
  • Cashiers Historic Hillsborough
  • Historic Charlotte
  • Historic Salisbury Foundation
  • Preservation Durham
  • Preservation Greensboro

And, here locally, the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County and their executive director Jack Thompson, an emerging leader here in the state who is continuing Asheville’s fine tradition of stewardship for its cultural resources.

The Trust also is fortunate to have some strong volunteer leadership from North Carolina. We are grateful to Irvin Henderson, who is on our board of trustees, and to emeritus trustees Julia Jones Daniels and Harvey Gantt.

We are also fortunate to have Steve Schuster and Benjamin Speller, Jr. as current advisors and Robert Allen, Edward Clement and Richard Mathews as emeritus advisors.

Asheville is a great place for what I want to talk about today, which is the positive power of preservation—what our work does to transform our communities and drive positive social change. Also how we can capitalize on those benefits to bring more visibility and cohesion to the cause of saving America’s historic places.

This has always been one of my favorite places, and it’s easy to see why it consistently makes the lists of America’s most desirable cities. All of you have done a wonderful job of creating a vibrant downtown here, and replicating that in Main Street communities across the state.

The Knight Foundation recently did a study called “Soul of the Community” in which they asked thousands of people in 26 communities nationwide what made them want to set down roots in a place.

You might think that people would talk about vibrant economies and job markets, and they do, but the interesting thing is that those things were not at the top of the list.

There was nearly universal agreement across the board that what people wanted was to live in a beautiful place with a wealth of social offerings and a welcoming spirit.

It is hard to imagine a better description of Asheville. This city is a wonderful example of what preservation does to create communities that are more than just places to live—they’re places to love.

That’s really the heart of our cause as preservationists, and as the Knight Foundation study demonstrates, it has a very strong emotional appeal.

Given how broad that appeal is, you would think preservation would be one of the largest and most successful movements in the country. And come to find out … it is.

But the bad news is that it’s not very visible and not very cohesive. The Trust has 127 statewide and local partner groups, with a total membership of roughly 250,000. And, to make the situation more challenging, the nation is becoming younger and more diverse, when as a movement, we getting older and more homogenous.

I believe that the issue isn’t the work we’re doing. It’s the way we’re connecting to people.

We’re too often thought of as the ones who tell people “no, you can’t do that,” rather than the ones to connect preservation of places with the very real social issues we face as a nation.

We want to change that. The Trust spent past year conducting extensive research about the market for historic preservation. We discovered that there are in the United States right now 65 million people who are sympathetic to the preservation cause, and 15 million who are already taking action.

What’s more, as a group, they tend to be younger and more diverse than current preservation leaders, more representative of the nation as a whole.

We believe this group, who we are calling local preservationists, is fundamental to the future of the movement. I know many of you are already reaching out to these people, but if you’re like us and your peers, you may have struggled to get traction.

They are not joining preservation organizations in vast numbers. Just 12% have heard of their statewide preservation group … and even fewer have heard of the National Trust!

We’ve spent a little over a year doing extensive research on these folks, and I wanted to share some of our findings today because they are very exciting.

We have also put together Field Guide to Local Preservationists. It’s on our website, and I encourage you to check it out.

I would like to share a video clip of a few local preservationists we met in Buffalo during our National Conference last year.

As you can see from just that short clip, these local preservationists are kindred spirits.

In our research, we asked people about 11 different preservation-related activities. Local Preservationists told us they took part in 7. National Trust members participated in 8. And preservation leaders participated in 9—just 2 more than the local preservationists!

These local preservationists are doing a remarkable amount of work. But because they don’t necessarily identify with the preservation movement, they are still a very diffuse group.

The Trust has been looking for ways to begin addressing that gap, creating a more visible and cohesive movement. As part of that effort, we’ve done some organizational soul searching about how we think and talk about what we do. And we have made some significant changes.

We are scaling up our 11 Most Endangered Historic Places program, which has been going on for 25 years now and is one of our most successful programs.

We are also working with local partners like all of you to develop a portfolio of endangered places nationwide that have national importance and help us capture the full range of the American story in all its diversity.

Currently have more than 30 sites in this portfolio, and have developed integrated campaigns that put all the resources of the organization behind the effort to save these places.

One good example of how this will work is happening here in North Carolina, in the effort to save and restore Rosenwald Schools.

As I’m sure many of you know, these schools were built in rural communities throughout the South in the early 20th century through a partnership between Booker T Washington and Julius Rosenwald, and they transformed the educational landscape for African Americans

North Carolina had more Rosenwald schools than any other state, and you have been leaders in working to save and restore these places. North Carolina activists nominated Rosenwald schools to the Trust’s 11 Most list in 2002 and the task force that launched the Trust’s Rosenwald Initiative, which has been going strong for more than a decade, got its start here in Charlotte.

The Trust recently committed to restoring 100 sites in honor of 100th anniversary of program and held the first-ever national gathering of Rosenwald champions in Tuskegee.

There were more than 300 attendees, including descendants of both Julius Rosenwald and Booker T Washington. Poet Nikki Giovanni was our keynote speaker.

There was a great energy at the event—Rosenwald’s great-granddaughter Alice was moved to increase her existing pledge to the program by $50,000 on the spot.

Projects like Rosenwald a wonderful example of the sort of engagement that already exists at the local level, and how much potential historic sites have to inspire people to action.

These efforts have been flying under the radar somewhat because of they are so local, but our hope is that the National Treasures campaign will bring more visibility, and unite people behind this idea of preservation as a cause—the cause for people saving places.

More cause-oriented language gives us an opportunity to counter some of the negative impressions of preservationists: demonstrate that we are willing to roll up our sleeves and work collaboratively with communities to find ways to save places and address the issues people care about most: things like job creation, economic development, affordable housing, and sustainability.

It is still very early, but we are seeing evidence that this new messaging resonates: I attended an event recently to celebrate the release of the Trust’s 25th 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

The audience was almost entirely local preservationists. We talked about benefits of preservation, and afterwards, a young woman came up to me and thanked me for telling her that there was a name for people who cared about the things she cared about—preservationist.

One thing we know about the local preservationists is that they want different ways to engage than our traditional supporters. They crave volunteer opportunities and they want to be advocates. They share some tools that we’ve been working on to engage them.

The first is advocacy campaigns. You all have been leaders in this area. I want to commend Myrick and all of you for the fantastic work you’ve done engaging people and building support for state tax credits. You have three of the strongest state tax credits in the country, and I know you recently extended the sunset date to 2015.

The fact that these were the only tax credits extended by the legislature this year is great testament to terrific bipartisan support you’ve built for the program.

At the Trust, our top advocacy priority this year is a national campaign to protect and enhance the federal historic tax credit, which could come under fire in Congress as part the push to cut the deficit.

We’re looking to you as a model, and we appreciate the great support you have provided.

Sean Stucker from Preservation Durham and our Irvin Henderson, one of our North Carolina trustees, flew in to Washington to advocate with the North Carolina congressional delegation, Myrick Howard wrote a great op-ed for the Winston-Salem Journal that touted the power of the state tax credit, especially when twined with the federal credit.

We’ve also been very heartened by the level of interest and support we’ve seen nationally. As part of our campaign, we recently completed a nationwide survey of voters’ perceptions of the federal historic tax credit, and we were very pleased to see that there is very strong, bipartisan support across the country. That support holds true across gender lines, and among people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds.

A strong majority of voters favored continuing the tax credit, despite the federal budget deficit, in light of the credit’s effectiveness in revitalizing older neighborhoods and downtowns, creating jobs, increasing tourism and preserving our heritage.

We are working hard to get these findings out to key decision-makers. And have also been using data from a report commissioned by the National Trust’s Community Investment Corporation to quantify the economic benefits of the federal credit over the past 30-plus years. The study was conducted by Rutgers University and we just updated this past July.

I wanted to let you know about it because I think it can be a useful tool for all of you too in making the economic case. Also available on our website.

It has created more than 2.2 MILLION jobs, and pumped nearly $100 BILLION in new investment into rural and urban communities.

We also found that rehabbing old buildings produces significantly more “bang for the buck” than the same-size investment in new construction, new highways, machinery manufacturing or agriculture.

As an added benefit, the vast majority of the investment stays in the local community, so in a very real way, you can point to preservation’s role in supporting local merchants and contractors as a way of “buying local.” Often these tax credit projects are in low-income communities too, where the income is sorely needed and can spark a cycle of revitalization.

Legislators are facing tough choices, and too many of them still believe we can’t afford to rehab historic places, when of course, we know the real truth is that we can’t afford NOT to.

This is true when it comes to our economic goals and when it comes to our sustainability goals as well.

This slide shows Wake Forest BioTech Place in Winston-Salem, which was the project Myrick wrote about in his op-ed. $100 million project made possible through a combination of state and federal tax credits. Construction created more than 600 jobs and generated roughly $50 million in state and local taxes.

The Trust’s National Trust Community Investment Corporation played an important role in the project, and one of its most exciting components were a series of green-energy improvements that transformed the former RJ Reynolds tobacco warehouse into a LEED-Silver life sciences center.

I know you’re all out there, as we are, beating the drum that the greenest building is the one already built.

The Trust’s Preservation Green Lab recently commissioned the most comprehensive study to date comparing the relative environmental benefits of reuse versus new construction. Leading sustainability experts looked at six building types in four U.S. cities, each in different climate zones.

And the findings won’t surprise any of you—preservation is almost always a greener option than new construction.

We found that it takes an average of 20-30 years for new, green building to overcome the climate impacts caused by the construction and demolition process.

Which is significant when you consider that Brookings Institution estimates that Americans demolish 1 BILLION square feet of building space each year and replace it with new construction?

To show you what a waste that is: the Trust’s study found that if the City of Portland were to retrofit and reuse just 1% of the office space and single-family housing slated for demolition over the next decade, it could meet 15% of its climate reduction goals.

I urge you to check out the report and use it as a springboard for conversation with leaders in your communities.

Here in North Carolina, 43 city mayors, including Asheville’s, signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Agreement, which committed them to lowering their cities’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.

Most of these cities will be gearing up this year to make new plans and goals for 2013. Now is a great time to start a conversation about how preservation can contribute to the greener future we all want for ourselves and our children.

Finally, I wanted to close by bringing it home to the redevelopment work happening here in North Carolina. Preservation North Carolina is setting a national standard through the Endangered Properties Program, which has put more than 600 properties back into productive residential and commercial use.

The Trust has explored the possibility of a national revolving fund to intervene directly when nationally significant historic properties are threatened. Your experiences here in North Carolina were a key part of our thinking on this, and we were grateful to Myrick for being part of a small team of experts nationwide who helped us do a preliminary report exploring what such a fund might look like.

The time isn’t right yet for us to move forward, but as resources before available, revolving fund remains a high priority for us. We see it as our role to lead in this area, and believe it is an excellent way to demonstrate the positive power of preservation and what it can do to make our communities more economically, socially and culturally vibrant places.

This is a tremendously exciting time for us. We have a cause that speaks directly to the issues Americans care about most today.

And we know there are 15 million local preservationists out there who already care about our work and are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved and make their lives, their communities and our nation better.

By bringing even a fraction of them more fully into the fold, we can dramatically expand the scale of our work, and make preservation the sort of visible, cohesive movement that can have a major impact on the future of the country in the decades ahead.

Thank you for the leadership work you’re already doing to engage these people and save North Carolina’s heritage.

We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with all of you to ensure that the best days for preservation are still ahead.


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