Historic Preservation as Economic Development

The familiar matter of heritage preservation versus development in downtown Halifax is scheduled to fall into the laps of regional councillors Tuesday.

This quote is the opening line of an article penned by city hall reporter, Michael Lightstone in the October 2nd 2011 edition of Halifax’s Chronicle Herald.  I want to draw attention to it in order to highlight a common mischaracterization of preservation.

Preservation is not the alternative to development as the quote implies.  There is no “either/or” choice.  Preservation is economic development or at the very least it is a tool for economic development.

Historic preservation is not about saving an old building simply because it’s old.  It is about smart, sustainable economics and it is about respect for one’s culture, heritage and environment – all of which have strong economic significance.

New developments create excitement often at the expense of previous developments, reinforcing the artificial and irrational need of consumers to trend toward newness.  The one economic guaranty of “newness” is that there will always be something newer.  Historic preservation does not place stock in such fleeting appeal.

The appeal of historic preservation is tied to the aesthetics of period architecture and the enduring connection with community heritage – people have lived and worked in these buildings since before living memory and we as a society have attachments to those same buildings as a result.  Those societal attachments impact our sense of place, continuity and even who we are.

Historic preservation strategies produce cumulative economic benefits.  Several of those benefits are highlighted here:

Competitive Advantage - Businesses strive to differentiate their products from those of competitors through developing competitive advantages.  Products that possess real or perceived competitive advantages stand out, seize market share, and are able to command a premium.  Communities follow that same model in their attempt to attract investment of people and capital.  Perhaps the best way in which a community can express its competitive advantage is through the built environment – a reflection of its culture and heritage.  It is often said that knowledge sector jobs can be located anywhere.  If a community looks like it could be anyplace it possesses no aesthetic competitive advantage with which to hold or attract talent.

Tourism Resource – Tourists, whether they are day trippers or globetrotters seek out unique places and experiences.  All round the world, historic streetscapes provide the requisite backdrop and infrastructure for successful tourist destinations.  It makes no great difference whether they are splendidly ornate or humbly vernacular so long as they convey a sense of place and contribute to an authentic local experience.

Buy Local Support – Historic preservation is naturally conducive to any buy local strategy.  Adaptive reuse of an historic building supports the local economy to a greater extent than does a new construction project of the same value.  A renovation is generally labour intensive, requiring local tradesmen whose earnings tend to cycle through the community.  New construction is generally materials intensive, requiring the importation of goods that cause money to flow out of the community.  Local and sustainable development is also a smart insulator in challenging economic times.

Main Street Retail Authenticity – Downtown commercial districts are generally (hopefully) comprised of older buildings that feature a high percentage of locally owned businesses.  Such businesses, in the form of boutiques or services, tend to contribute to local culture in a more genuine way than do the shops in suburban malls.  The authenticity of the downtown merchant is heightened by historic commercial buildings that speak of a local shopping continuity spanning generations.

Business Incubation – Historic commercial districts often exhibit a mix of entrenched family businesses and new fledgling ventures.  The affordable rental spaces often associated with historic commercial districts serve as incubators for the ideas of entrepreneurs – many of whom are young visionaries who, succeed or fail, need a venue in which to roll the dice.  The opportunity for small business incubation fosters entrepreneurship and contributes to the retention of young adults and nourishes their hopes and aspirations.

Every community has its own examples of past choices made between historic preservation and economic development.  Choices for the former have never precipitated economic decline and generally stimulate renewal.  Municipal leaders and developers who capitalize on the promise of historic preservation will not be making the choice between preservation or development but seizing upon a strategy that marries all the comprehensive concerns of citizens: cultural, environmental, social, and economic.

Posted by Joe Oct 06, 2011 Posted in Economic Sustainability, Municipal Issues, Planning & Policy Comments Off

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