Preserve vital preservation tool

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 05:46 PM

A couple of decades ago, fewer than 4,000 people worked in downtown Durham and some locals joked you had to be careful on its deserted streets lest tumbleweeds roll over you.

The empty buildings that once had housed one of world’s largest tobacco companies stood idle, empty and foreboding. Economic life had flowed out to shopping malls and office parks far from the center city.

Today, more than 16,000 people work downtown, and new businesses are adding to that total steadily. In those once-abandoned buildings of the American Tobacco Company, one of the largest historic rehabilitations in the state has created a vibrant campus where more people work than at the tobacco company’s peak.

Anyone familiar with the tobacco complex’s rebirth will tell you the economics of it – and a host of other projects that have resurrected downtown -- would not have worked without the state’s tax credit for historic rehab work that meets rigorous standards.

The state legislature is on the brink of jettisoning those tax credits, which have fueled not just Durham’s downtown preservation projects but others across the state. Many have been in mill towns that suffered even greater economic devastation than Durham as the state’s textile, tobacco and furniture industries cratered.

We understand the philosophical antipathy of the current legislative majority to tax breaks, and its drive to simplify -- and lower -- state taxes. But losing the historic tax credit is particularly pound-foolish.

That is abundantly clear here in Durham. Myrick Howard, the longtime head of Preservation North Carolina, calls Durham a “poster child” for the success of the program.

There are many reasons to embrace the historic preservation that has been a cornerstone of our downtown renaissance -- aesthetics, the importance of concrete links to our past and those who shaped the city of today, reuse of important assets rather than sending them to the landfill. “Historic preservation -- the ultimate recycling,” goes a popular preservationist bumper sticker.

Leave aside those softer, squishier reasons. Think about economic impact.

“Downtown revitalization through historic preservation is one of the best examples in this country of sustainable economic development,” author and lecturer Donovan Rypkema, an authority on the economics of preservation, said in a talk here in 2009. At that time, he noted “here in North Carolina a million dollars spent in the rehabilitation of an historic building adds 23.4 jobs to the state’s economy and $760,000 in household income.”

In a report more recently for the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Rypkema and two coauthors wrote that “historic preservation has become a fundamental tool for strengthening American communities. It has proven to be an effective tool for a wide range of public goals including small business incubation, affordable housing, sustainable development, neighborhood stabilization, center city revitalization, job creation, promotion of the arts and culture, small town renewal, heritage tourism, economic development, and others.”

The preservation tax credits are a vital part of that economic development tool. It would be a job-destroying mistake to let them slip away.