Beyond Tourism: The Economics of Historic Preservation in Savannah

By Special Contributor posted 06-11-2015 10:14


By: Daniel Carey


Ever wonder why preservation’s positive bottom line too often gets lumped into and overshadowed by heritage tourism numbers? I have. And it bugs me. Well, it used to anyway. Until Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF) did something about it. You should, too. Protect your turf. Reframe your analysis. Stand on your own numbers. Chart, graph and depict them. Tell the story that no one else will tell for you. Remember what baseball legend Dizzy Dean (and Savannah preservationist Lee Adler) said? “It ain’t braggin’ if you’ve done it.”

Heritage tourism is good. It puts people in touch with historic places and deepens their sensitivity for history and architecture. When people can experience—firsthand—the value of historic places, then doors are opened to those who can support the preservation movement and get engaged in the work we do. Therefore, it makes sense that we have tracked and continue to track heritage tourism dollars. But preservation is not just a means to an end for a healthy tourist destination.

Borne out of a need to make the case for why pro-preservation policies are good business and why public funding is a good investment, dozens of states have measured the economic benefits of preservation. Those reports steered overdue attention to preservation’s role in investment tax credit projects, job creation, increasing property values, etc. They were used as lobbying tools to help pass legislation and shore up funding for state historic preservation offices (SHPO), and they, sometimes, earned us a seat at the “Big Boys Table of Decision-Makers.” But too often, it seemed, the impacts of preservation were overshadowed by the huge and sometimes amorphous numbers of heritage tourism. So much so that preservation appeared to be merely a ripple instead of the actual stone that made the waves.

It is tempting to glom on to the fantastically large trillion-dollar tourism industry and claim a slice of that pie as our own. We’d be justified in doing so. But what part is really ours? And how much can we legitimately claim and defend? There is cause (preservation) and effect (heritage tourism), but even if you can carve out a defensible slice, what is that really doing for you and the preservation movement? Is it helping preservation...or tourism? Is preservation a forethought…or an afterthought? Is it a core part of the economy…or just a residual benefit? It seems to me that by blending our numbers too much with tourism’s economic impacts, we’re watering down our own distilled spirits. Preservation is like good Kentucky bourbon: The 80+ proof stuff is plenty good…it don’t need no mixers!

 Daniel Carey and Historic Savannah Foundation partnered with the Savannah Tree Foundation to plant trees in Thomas Square. This image is taken in front of one of HSF's revolving fund properties on Lincoln Square. | Credit: Historic Savannah Foundation.
Daniel Carey and Historic Savannah Foundation partnered with the Savannah Tree Foundation to plant trees in Thomas Square. This image is taken in front of one of HSF's revolving fund properties on Lincoln Square. | Credit: Historic Savannah Foundation.

What did HSF do? We tweaked the standard economic impact study model that has been used for decades. This tried-and-true format serves the broader preservation community well—especially at the statewide level—but we determined it was time to hone down the approach to better suit local purposes. Instead of using a macro-approach that included big numbers generated by heritage tourism (but are hard to define and take credit for in strict preservation terms), we employed a micro-approach that focused solely on the numbers within locally designated and National Register historic districts. We discovered that preservation does not just spur economic investment and improve quality of life blah, blah, blah…but that those truisms and other positive results are even more the case in historic districts.

In Savannah, because we have had a successful revolving fund for half a century and saved more than 360 buildings (and counting), we knew our numbers could stand alone. Add to that the impacts of SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design) and other local and statewide financial incentives…and we had the juice to tell a good story. So we approached the National Trust for Historic Preservation with our idea and applied for a grant from the Richard and Julia Moe Fund…or, as we affectionately call it, “Moe Money!” Even before we made the application, we were encouraged by Dick Moe who saw the value, uniqueness and transferability of this approach.

We engaged Don Rypkema and his firm, PlaceEconomics, to study preservation’s impacts in Savannah and Chatham County. Our hypothesis: Historic preservation is a powerful engine for Savannah’s economy. To be honest, that premise was as much about reminding those that take historic preservation for granted as it was to prove a point. Lately it seems that Savannah has not just embraced—but clutched onto—tourism as a cash cow for the city’s coffers. To be honest, it is.
But simply exploiting history and architecture for cash while not reinvesting in and protecting the resources that are the attraction is short-sighted and unsustainable. HSF’s intended audience for the report was local decision-makers including the City Council, Chatham County Commission, Metropolitan Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Chamber of Commerce, Visit Savannah, Downtown Business Association, Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, Savannah Economic Development Authority, etc. These are the groups that influence and shape development in the community…and they need to keep their eyes on the ball of preservation because that’s the precious commodity. Encourage it, facilitate it, keep it in play…and we’ll keep scoring. Stop practicing, hit it out of bounds, lose it…and be penalized.

 Berrien House c. 1791, a $3m investment project. | Credit: Historic Savannah Foundation
Berrien House c. 1791, a $3 million investment project. | Credit: Historic Savannah Foundation

Okay, so what did we learn and how can you make the same case in your community? The report, titled “Beyond Tourism,” took about a year to complete. Funding came from several sources and the cost was in the mid-five figures (each situation is unique so cost will vary from locale to locale). We used an advisory committee to help steer the process and provide access to information. We produced a handsome and easy-to-read printed report of 60-plus pages that includes plenty of pictures and graphs to illustrate key findings. Here are a few:

  • Savannah’s historic districts comprise 8 percent of the city’s land area, 15 percent of its buildings, 16 percent of its population, 24 percent of its taxable value and 31 percent of its jobs.
  • Just the work done using federal historic tax credits has meant an average of 169 jobs and $7.5 million in labor income each year over the last 15 years.
  • Property values in historic districts outperformed the city as a whole.
  • During the recent national economic downturn, rates of foreclosure in Savannah’s historic districts were lower than the city as a whole.
  • Strategic investments by HSF and SCAD—in historic buildings—have catalyzed and spawned additional investment and neighborhood revitalization.

The report relied on data from the City of Savannah, Metropolitan Planning Commission, City of Tybee Island, Chatham County, HSF, SCAD, state and federal databases, and interviews.

Beyond Tourism” acknowledges preservation’s place in the local economy. It should garner the attention of local decision makers who will benefit from a fresh perspective on a venerable industry. This report can be used to attract and retain business. It makes the point that preservation should be respected, supported and nurtured like any other industry that contributes so much to life in Savannah and Chatham County.

Daniel Carey is the president and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

#Economics #HeritageTourism

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