Kentucky Heritage Council
Commentary: Preserving historic places is essential to a strong economy
By Craig A. Potts, Kentucky Heritage Council executive director and state historic preservation officer
It’s time to catch our breath after a busy month of heritage-based events in May – starting with the Kentucky Derby, followed by National Travel and Tourism Week, then more festivals, street fairs, spring flings, May Days and celebrations of bourbon, music, food, art, cars, hikes, bikes and horses than any one person could possibly take in.
The Kentucky Heritage Council and communities around the state also sponsored activities to commemorate May as National Historic Preservation Month, an annual observance first championed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1973. Preservation Month is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate how historic places fuel heritage tourism and local economic revitalization, and to raise awareness about why historic sites are important to our shared heritage and worthy of preservation.
Events ranged from house tours, to educational programs, to awards highlighting places that have been saved from the wrecking ball or demolition by neglect. Many of these transformations are dramatic and demonstrate that buildings often deemed beyond preservation are, in fact, not.
While the idea for Historic Preservation Month is to celebrate successes and focus on the positive, some years the act of “celebrating” is not always in order. Kentucky communities continue to lose historic buildings and sites at an alarming rate – the very tangible assets that tell the unique story of our state’s history, and create a reason for people to come here seeking an authentic experience.
It seems clear that by repairing, reusing and celebrating our traditional places, we encourage sustained vibrancy and pride in our communities. Who can argue that redevelopment projects like 21c Museum Hotels, National Historic Landmarks like Churchill Downs and Keeneland, local landmarks like the Beecher Hotel in Somerset, or historic Main Streets in communities like Maysville and Paducah do not significantly contribute to the local and state economy?
Time and again, projects that maintain or incorporate historic buildings are found to enrich and enhance a community’s sense of place. Think about all the fun events that happen here during May and throughout the year. How many of these take place at historic sites or in historic buildings, along historic Main Streets, at state parks, protected battlefields, or along lakes and rivers traversed by historic bridges?
For communities of all sizes with the vision and will to honor their past, the Kentucky Heritage Council’s Main Street Program has proven that historic buildings can be huge assets, given the proper investment of time and effort, and of course, money. Since 1979 this program can document $3.86 billion of private investment leveraged and supported by public funds, impacting more than 100 communities over nearly four decades – all of which would look very different today without this intervention. I am clearly biased, but I believe Kentucky is home to some of the most beautiful and inviting downtowns in the country. Interesting architecture combined with a strong sense of place, an entrepreneurial spirit and community pride are essential ingredients in each success story.
For buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places, owners can qualify for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits for work certified by this agency. These credits can be a substantial dollar-for-dollar reduction in income tax liability. Our staff also provides technical and design assistance, works with elected officials and Certified Local Governments to support preservation planning, and partners with others to present engaging public forums such as a Strong Towns® conference coming up Sept. 23-25 in Louisville.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, the legislation that helped curb destructive urban renewal policies and led to the establishment of state historic preservation offices. A push is being made now to plan events all year long and especially during Preservation Month, to broaden our message and engage a wider audience in caring about preserving Kentucky’s shared heritage and building strong, walkable and vibrant communities that embrace the new while protecting the old. We invite you to learn more about what we do, and mark your calendars.
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An agency of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the Kentucky Heritage Council / State Historic Preservation Office is responsible for the identification, protection and preservation of prehistoric resources and historic buildings, sites and cultural resources throughout the Commonwealth, in partnership with other state and federal agencies, local communities and interested citizens. This mission is integral to making communities more livable and has a far-ranging impact on issues as diverse as economic development, heritage tourism, jobs creation, affordable housing, community revitalization, environmental conservation and quality of life. www.heritage.ky.gov