Doyle-Schechtman: Historic Preservation

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(HOST) Commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman is trying to make sense of some of the choices the state is making in response to the current budget crisis.

(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) In Washington, Montpelier, and around the kitchen table, there’s been a lot of talk lately about budgets, stimulus packages and the economy.  Most people have strong opinions about what should be done, how it should be done, and who or what is best suited to do it. A considerable amount of self-interested banter lends its voice to the chorus as well.  Transparent and hidden agendas, filled with self-serving arguments that discount one approach in favor of another, abound. As do, it would appear, some misguided assumptions that actually sacrifice industry and utility.

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation is one department currently being subjected to this line of thinking.  It’s been under the budgetary knife for months now. In the name of cost-effectiveness and efficiency, it’s being pulled apart, and its various assets scattered hither and yon.

The Division for Historic Preservation was authorized by statute four decades ago. It’s "the public agency designated to be the advocate for historic and prehistoric properties in Vermont." While its primary role is to protect and preserve links to our collective past, the department also addresses many important issues facing both our present and our future, including: affordable housing, job creation, economic development, community revitalization, and environmental conservation.

It’s also proven to be an economic engine for the State of Vermont.  Since 2005, the Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program overseen by the Division has generated $112.9 million, ranking it 5th in the nation with the number of projects it has supported, and placing it in the country’s top 10 for the number of dollars it has generated.

Last year the program processed $60 million in "shovel ready" rehabilitation projects. The prospects for this year are only a quarter of that. Three key staff positions that have either been eliminated or moved out of the Division are certainly part of the problem. These staff salaries, I hasten to add, were paid for with a 60/40 federal/state match. Not many other agencies or departments in state government get that kind of return on our investment. It’s hard, therefore, to see why this cash cow is ostensibly being put out to pasture.

What does seem apparent is that this kind of decision-making will ultimately cost us more than money. With the disappearance of our historic resources comes the erosion of our quality of life. Those of us who live here are the beneficiaries of the hard work and dedication of the Division staff each and every day. We live, work and eat in the historic properties they have endeavored to save.  We are entertained and educated in them.  They are the core of our downtowns and our village centers.  Those who visit here experience a stong sense of place and cultural continuity.  Vermont has won international recognition as a tourism destination based on the relationship between the traditional character of our built environment and our natural one. What we have here is a proven foundation for a sustainable future.  So, what gives?

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