When Budget Cuts Hit Home

Well, after an unexpected four-day weekend for some of us in central and southern Mississippi (and maybe stretching to a 5-day weekend for some who get off for Mardi Gras), it’s back to the daily grind. If you enjoy snow pictures, you can check out a few I took while wandering my Fondren neighborhood during our little blizzard last Friday.

While I was pleasantly stuck at home, I had a chance to catch up on more national preservation news, where all the buzz is focused on the recent White House budget proposal that eliminates two popular preservation programs, namely Save America’s Treasures (or SAT to those in the know) and Preserve America.

As you no doubt recall from an informative MissPres post last May, Save America’s Treasures is an annual grant program, administered through the National Park Service, that is one of the very few grants that helps with bricks-and-mortar projects for historic preservation. While its focus is mainly on projects with national significance, and can include artifacts such as the Star Spangled Banner, it also has helped fund renovations and repairs at hometown places like Meridian’s Grand Opera House, the Lafayette County Courthouse, and the Eudora Welty House in Jackson. An SAT grant even helped pay to preserve and restore the WLBT news film collection, owned by MDAH and important for researchers in the civil rights period.

The Preserve America program, on the other hand, is less about bricks and mortar and more about helping communities and regions organize and market their heritage tourism programs. According to the Preserve America website:

This program complements the Save America’s Treasures grant program, which funds “bricks-and-mortar” projects, by helping local communities develop sustainable resource management strategies and sound business practices for the continued preservation and use of heritage assets.

Interestingly, from a political perspective, Save America’s Treasures was initiated under the Clinton administration in 1998, while Preserve America was one of the Bush administration’s projects, so I guess it’s seen as more fair to eliminate both at the same time.

I’m a big fan of a balanced budget, as I’ve said many time before, and I know that everyone wants to cut spending until it affects something they care about. But I do genuinely believe that these are both of that rare breed: effective and efficient federal programs. While the Obama budget states that “both programs lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear,” in fact, research by Donovan Rypkema shows that Save America’s Treasures grants generate both jobs and private investment.

Here’s what Rypkema, known for his book The Economics of Historic Preservation, has to say on his blog “PlaceEconomics” about the alleged lack of metrics:

Between 1999 and 2009, the Save America’s Treasures program allocated around $220 million dollars for the restoration of nearly 900 historic structures, many of them National Historic Landmarks. This investment by the SAT program generated in excess of $330 million from other sources. This work meant 16,012 jobs (a job being one full time equivalent job for one year…the same way they are counting jobs for the Stimulus Program). The cost per job created? $13,780.

This compares with the White House announcement that the Stimulus Package is creating one job for every $248,000. Whose program is helping the economy?

I know they aren’t stupid at the White House. Are they just too damned lazy to make the most basic of analyses?

Or did they conclude that the preservation movement was just so impotent that they could kick it around with impunity?

I like a man who says what he thinks.

It is worth considering whether the preservation movement has become “impotent”–I happen to agree but would love to be disabused of the notion–and if so, why are we in such straits and how can we regain our momentum? The ArchivesNext blog muses that this “metrics” argument may be just the first in a new wave of cuts to the humanities and arts, which wouldn’t be surprising given the decades-long decline of history and art in schools in favor of the more metric-friendly maths and sciences.

According to Rypekma’s state-by-state analysis, Mississippi has received $5,533,378 in SAT grants and has matched that amount with $17,024,020 for total project costs of $22,557,398. With this money 552 jobs were created for a per/job cost of $10,020 in SAT dollars. Which is a lot less than the average $248,000 per job created by the stimulus bill (someone please sign me up for one of those jobs!)

The Preserve America program perhaps is less able to summon hard and fast metrics (I’m trying to see how many times I can use the word “metrics” in one post). Personally, I’ve always wondered why it was administered by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which is supposed to be a referee between states and federal agencies when it comes to projects that affect historic properties, but which in the last decade or so has seemed increasingly unable to stop other federal agencies from blithely bulldozing whatever they want to (see, for instance, our own Mississippi Gulf Coast or New Orleans) as long as they check the box on the form that says “completed Section 106 review.” Nevertheless, in the past few years, I have seen previously disorganized heritage tourism efforts become organized and regional in their planning mostly because of the impetus provided by the Preserve America program, and it seems as if eliminating the program now would cut it off just when it was getting to the good part.

The National Trust is leading efforts to advocate for these programs to Congress. Check out their site “Save Preservation Funding” and see what you can do.



Categories: Grants, Historic Preservation, National Trust

2 replies

  1. I signed and sent off the petition from the National Trust. I can think of many other federal programs which should be slashed before these two.

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  1. They Fought the Feds and the Feds Won | Preservation in Mississippi

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