One of the most overlooked aspects of historic preservation is its economic impact. Cities and towns that have embraced their heritage and allowed it to remain often take on a vibrant, eclectic feel, a trick that could not be pulled off in a new construction by the cleverest architects.
Preservation enhances real estate values and fosters local businesses, keeping historic main streets and downtowns economically viable. Heritage tourism is a real economic force, one that is evident in places that have been preserved their historic character. Developers are discovering that money spent rehabilitating historic buildings is actually an investment in the future, when these structures could be the showpieces of a revitalized city.
The seismic shift in the global economy over the past thirty years hit former American industrial cities with a force not seen since the Great Depression. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore emptied out as the jobs evaporated. In the absence of plants and factories, some cities have found their historic fabric to be a crucial piece of a new identity. They have discovered that the antidote to a bleak future is the past. Those who have embraced preservation, diversified economically, and invested in their heritage, have managed to thrive.
At play here are ideas that were central to the National Historic Preservation Act. The quality of life, the things that make a city work, that make it livable, that give it life. The nation is coming to understand that remaining in touch with its past is part of that equation, that people do not have to settle for a homogenization of America in which our individual identities, our sense of place is lost.
This is the context in which initiatives such as the NPS Preservation Tax Credit Program, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program can play a major role. These high-impact, bricks-and-mortar programs have been instrumental in cities that are in the process of remaking themselves.
Following are some examples of preservation's power to generate economic change: