Friday, September 16, 2011

The Economy of Preservation

We spent a nice day in Lewisburg, West Virginia last weekend.  One reason for choosing Lewisburg for a day trip was that it is close to our home in Southwest Virginia, but beyond that, even though we didn't consciously make the decision based on historic preservation, all of the reasons are inextricably tied to it:
  • Lewisburg has a sense of place.  The minute you enter town, you know you are somewhere special and not in Anytown, USA.  History is evident from the old buildings and the tree-lined streets.  The business district has character and draws you in.  This is a place you want to stop.
  • Lewisburg is pedestrian friendly.  Though several main roads connect in town, all of the roads are 2 lanes with parallel parking.  The parked cars and street trees help to provide a barrier between pedestrians and traffic while also slowing the cars driving through.  Why are the roads narrow?  Because the buildings are historic and were built at a time when pedestrians and horses were the norm or few people owned those new-fangled automobile things.
  • Lewisburg is compact, yet expansive.  What do I mean by that?  The area that comprises downtown Lewisburg is just a few blocks, creating a compact area to walk around.  No sprawl here.  But it is expansive enough that you can spend an entire afternoon here eating lunch (and maybe dinner too) at a local restaurant; browsing the galleries of locally-made and high-quality arts and crafts, antique stores, and specialty shops; and taking the historic walking tour.  You can expand your trip to the evening too by taking in a show at Carnegie Hall and spend the night at a local B&B.
  • Money spent in Lewisburg stays local.  The majority of businesses are locally owned and not owned by a faceless conglomerate in another state who doesn't really even know where Lewisburg is.  That means that money you spend in Lewisburg most likely returns to business owners and employees who live locally.  If they, in turn, spend the money they earned from you locally, then the returns to the local economy snowball.
I don't know the logistics of how Lewisburg became the community it is today, but I do know that many small towns have used federal and state historic preservation funding and tax credits to help them revitalize and reinvent themselves after experiencing extended economic downturns due to lost industries and changes in the way people shop.  What does federal and state preservation funding accomplish for these towns?  It creates jobs.  It creates jobs for the people who restore and rehabilitate the historic buildings to be used by restaurants, galleries, specialty shops, grocery and hardware stores, office space, apartments, and a myriad of other uses.  It creates jobs for the business owners and their staff that occupy the historic buildings.  It creates jobs for tourism-related businesses such as restaurants, lodging, and gas that are needed so visitors can spend the day, spend the night, spend the week.  These may not be the large-scale industrial park-type industries our politicians are thinking of when they chant the "more jobs" mantra, but these small local businesses are important for rural economies, small town residents, and the American way of life.  And funding to help with these preservation projects is vital to our economy.  That might not be so obvious if you live in Anytown, USA.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a nice place to visit. Another town that we went through on our last travels is Woodstock VT. Beautiful old buildings and a vital community even on a Sunday morning with shops open and lots of people wandering the streets. Unfortunately we didn't actually stop because we were expected elsewhere.