Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The National Trust and Federal Agencies as Partners  

12-09-2015 17:35

The story of historic preservation in America has always been a story of partnerships. Ever since Ann Pamela Cunningham rallied the women of the nation to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s (and especially since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966) the spirit, resources, and leadership needed to save historic places and revitalize communities have been provided by partnerships involving private citizens, elected officials, grassroots organizations, corporations, educational and cultural institutions, philanthropic foundations, the media, and agencies of government at the local, state, and federal levels.

Partnerships between public agencies and private organizations can make great things happen. And now, thanks to an executive order, federal agencies -- from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Coast Guard -- are being encouraged to seek out partnerships that promote preservation. In 2003 President Bush issued Executive Order 13287, which challenges federal agencies not only to protect their historic properties and use them to support agency missions but also to pursue preservation through intergovernmental cooperation and public/private partnerships. The executive order is a component of the Preserve America initiative, which seeks to highlight and celebrate America’s historic and natural heritage assets and the role they play in promoting tourism, revitalizing communities, creating jobs, and educating the public.

In March 2004 the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation issued a report, Becoming Better Stewards of Our Past: Recommendations for Enhancing Federal Management of Historic Properties, which spells out recommendations to help federal agencies become better stewards of their historic properties. (Available from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation: go to pubs-2004stewardshipreport.) These recommendations provide an opportunity for all of us working to preserve and protect historic resources to renew our efforts to work with public agencies at all levels to form innovative and creative partnerships.

The National Trust’s Role in Partnerships

The past decade has been a period of significant change for the National Trust. Beginning in 1995 our annual federal appropriation was phased out, and we began the transition to reliance on private funding. A key element in the transition process was our first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, which focused on building our endowment. By the time we closed the books on the campaign last year, we had raised almost $136 million.

Our newly won financial independence provides the underpinning for a thorough reinvention of the National Trust. It’s still very much a work in progress, but we are in the midst of planning for what we want the Trust to become over the next five to ten years. This plan, or the “Next Trust” as we call it, is still limited to some “big ideas” -- things like engaging a million people in preservation, and securing enactment of federal incentives for rehabbing older buildings for housing. The themes of partnership, diversity, and education recur in every aspect of the plan.

What does this plan and the financial independence that fuels it mean for others -- especially our partners -- in preservation? The answer rests with that word “independence.” That one word describes what we bring to the partnership table -- not only our independent status as a non-governmental entity but also our independent outlook. I don’t want to claim that we can “boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I do believe we can -- and will -- at least be able to offer an informed and independent perspective on preservation issues and be unafraid to speak out on politically sensitive issues that federal agencies may have good reasons not to tackle.

Effective, innovative partnerships between the National Trust and a wide variety of federal agencies have been in place for years, or even decades. These partnerships are much more than a ceremonial handshake and photo opportunities -- these cooperative efforts are at work in communities across the country and making preservation a reality for hundreds of Americans. Several recent cooperative projects between the National Trust and federal agencies illustrate the range and potential of public-private partnerships.

Department of Defense

Last year the U.S. Army established the Army-Community Heritage Partnerships program to strengthen ties between Army installations and neighboring historic commercial districts. The National Trust’s National Main Street Center was asked to be the Army’s partner in this initiative, which aims, among other things: to create stronger bonds between the installation and the community by spotlighting their shared heritage; to use preservation as a tool to spark revitalization in the community commercial districts; and to enhance shopping opportunities and services in the commercial district and thereby better serve the needs of local residents and Army personnel alike.

The program is currently at work in three demonstration sites: Highland Falls, N.Y., adjacent to the U.S. Military Academy; Columbus, Ga., next door to Fort Benning; and Leavenworth, Kan., site of Fort Leavenworth. In each place, Main Street staff -- among other tasks -- assess conditions in the downtown area and the existing relationships between downtown and the Army installation, work with Army officials and local government and business leaders to strengthen ties, explore ways to provide incentives for marketing and for building rehab efforts, encourage the use of downtown buildings to meet installation housing needs, and help develop and implement strategies for promoting heritage tourism.

Army officials are so pleased with what’s happening in the three pilot communities that they’ve provided funding for the Main Street Center to deliver training and technical assistance to three additional sites. One of the new localities has been selected -- Sierra Vista, Ariz., adjacent to Fort Huachuca. Plans for the second site -- Carlisle, Pa., home of the Carlisle Barracks -- are now being finalized, and the third site will be named soon.

For the past few years, the Army -- and last year, the entire Department of Defense -- have been official cosponsors of the National Preservation Conference, thereby gaining an opportunity to present their views on major preservation issues, engage in dialogue, and take advantage of training opportunities the conference provides. We value the mutually beneficial relationship that has grown between us. Now we’re very pleased that this Heritage Partnerships program is giving us the opportunity to work even more closely together on a preservation issue that concerns us both: bringing new life to America’s traditional business districts.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

The Trust’s National Main Street Center is also working in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development on a new federal funding source for developing affordable housing downtown. This new program -- Main Street/HOPE VI -- grew out of the American Dream Downpayment Act signed into law last December. It will provide funds to Main Street organizations for use in developing affordable downtown housing in upper-floor and other underutilized space in existing buildings.

HUD will be developing the program regulations over the next few months, and the HOPE VI office has invited the assistance of the National Trust’s Main Street Center in this process. Few details have been finalized, but here’s what we do know: Eligible communities must have a population of less than 50,000 and have fewer than 100 units of public housing. The developer may be either a for-profit or nonprofit entity. Approximately $7.5 million will be available for the entire program this year; the maximum grant will be $1 million, though it’s more likely that grants will average about $500,000. It’s expected that the program will be ready to accept applications possibly as soon as the fall of 2004.

Affordable housing is the subject of another current partnership between the Trust and HUD. In this case, we’ve entered into a cooperative agreement to produce a report on “overcoming the barriers to affordable housing rehabilitation.” This is a follow-up to an earlier report that identified policy and market obstacles to affordable housing rehab; that document, issued a couple of years ago, has been well received and is now in its second printing. As in the earlier report, the Trust will collaborate with Rutgers University and The Enterprise Foundation to conduct the research and present our findings. findings. By identifying ways that housing providers have addressed challenges at the development, construction, and occupancy phases of their projects, the Trust and HUD hope to make a significant contribution to efforts to meet the nation’s critical affordable housing needs.

Another way we work together to support innovative local efforts is through the annual presentation of the National Trust/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, which honors projects that make effective use of historic preservation in providing affordable housing or expanded economic opportunities. In the six-year history of the award, we’ve recognized projects ranging from the conversion of a long-neglected historic house into a top-of-the-line child care facility in Los Angeles to a citywide program that acquires and resells vacant and dilapidated houses in historic neighborhoods in Covington, Ky. Most of our partnerships are about trying to get something done; this one is about recognizing those who have already done something -- and done it well.

Department of Transportation

Given the number of times preservationists have squared off against highway officials over road-building projects, the Department of Transportation might seem an unlikely preservation partner. In fact, the National Trust has recently collaborated on a number of issues and projects, and we’re eager to do that more.

In partnership with the Federal Highway Administration and other agencies, the Trust has sponsored a series of conferences on “Preserving the Historic Road in America” at which preservationists and representatives of state transportation departments have met to talk about strategies for balancing historic preservation and highway safety and design. This kind of dialogue leads to innovative transportation policies that enhance and preserve community character.

Last year DOT -- particularly the Federal Transit Administration -- was the Trust’s partner in the production of a report entitled The Returning City: Historic Preservation and Transit in the Age of Civic Revival. This report came out of a study commissioned to examine how decisions about public transportation, community development, and historic preservation have been made -- and how their respective values have contributed to successful transit-related projects. It presents important information gathered from a number of communities across America -- and the good news is that it barely begins to cover all the positive developments out there.

We’re eager to form other partnerships with the federal DOT and its state-level counterparts to gather and share additional examples of how preservationists and transportation officials are working together on issues such as context-sensitive design and the integration of transportation planning and smart-growth initiatives. This kind of partnership is absolutely essential if we hope to create truly livable communities, to provide safe and efficient ways of getting there, and to ensure that “there” remains worth getting to.

General Services Administration

The Trust has enjoyed a long history of partnership with the General Services Administration. In 2000 we kicked off National Preservation Week with a ceremony at the Old Tariff Building in Washington, D.C., celebrating the roles of GSA and the Advisory Council in facilitating the landmark’s rebirth as a luxury hotel. The following year, we formed a partnership with GSA to use three communities -- Baltimore; Athens, Ga.; and Springfield, Ill. -- as pilot sites to study the impact on downtown business districts when federal government offices are located there.

To tell the truth, a major factor in our relationship with GSA is pure admiration. The National Trust has its hands full taking care of only 25 historic sites, while GSA is responsible for 1,700 federal properties, including some of the nation’s most significant historic and architectural landmarks. We’ve recognized this fine record of stewardship on a couple of occasions: In 1999 we gave one of our National Preservation Honor Awards to the GSA/National Capital Region in recognition of its work at Washington-area sites such as the National Building Museum, the Old Executive Office Building, and Clara Barton’s wartime office. Just last year, GSA received our John H. Chafee Trustees Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy for its innovative Legacy Vision policy that promises a bright future for scores of historic federal buildings that anchor and adorn communities from coast to coast.

The Department of the Interior

That brings me finally to our longstanding partnership with the Department of the Interior -- and this is a case where “last” is most certainly not “least.” In matters having to do with historic preservation, the Trust and Interior -- especially the National Park Service -- are practically sister organizations. Like most siblings, we sometimes butt heads over a particular issue, but we’re quick to jump to each other’s defense when the need arises.

For many years, the Park Service has been a valued cosponsor of our National Preservation Conference as well as numerous workshops, seminars, and other educational programs. More recently, we have partnered with NPS in Save America’s Treasures, which is one of the most ambitious, most far-reaching preservation initiatives ever undertaken in this country. Launched in 1998 as the keystone of the nation’s celebration of the millennium, the program has been a real bi- partisan effort, as evidenced by the fact that its honorary chairs have been Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush.

SAT has designated more than 1,000 official projects across the country. Congress has appropriated $188 million in matching grants for the preservation of these sites and artifacts. These funds, which are administered by the Park Service, are complemented by $55 million that the Trust has raised from private sources. This is a partnership that works, in a program whose significance, I believe, is impossible to overstate. Save America’s Treasures has helped people realize that every community has something -- a building, a statue, a document -- whose loss would cost the community a part of its own soul. Even more important, it has reminded us that saving the places and things that tell America’s story is not someone else’s job.

It is our job as preservationists to help the Park Service get the funding it needs to take care of the thousands of historic structures for which it is responsible. On more than one occasion the National Trust has used its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list to call attention to specific historic resources in trouble. NPS sites listed -- almost always with the Park Service’s support -- have included Valley Forge, Mesa Verde, buildings at Glacier National Park, the schooner C.A. Thayer in San Francisco, Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, Ark., and battlefields at Chancellorsville and Antietam. In most cases, our listing has been instrumental in generating the attention needed to pull the sites out of crisis. To help keep them from falling into crisis in the first place, our public policy staff and its grassroots lobbying network of preservationists across the country almost always has obtaining more funding for the National Park Service at or near the top of the “to-do” list.

Recently our ongoing dialogue with Interior has focused on a couple of important preservation issues. One is the frequently vexing matter of protection of historic and cultural resources -- especially Native American sacred sites -- on lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The other is an effort to help improve the use of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit program. The National Trust and the Historic Preservation Development Council hosted and supported a working group that included Trust staff, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, Preservation Action, members of the development community, and other stakeholders. The working group identified a number of specific challenges to fully utilizing the potential of the rehab tax credit. This effort has culminated in a series of recommendations prepared last December by the working group. The recommendations have been generally well received by NPS. We believe this is an excellent illustration of how the Trust and the Park Service can be true partners in pushing each other forward toward our ultimate goal of making preservation and revitalization happen.

Potential Partnerships

In addition to these, there are some other agencies with which we hope to forge strong partnerships in the future.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was our partner, along with DOT, in the 2001 production of Stories across America: Opportunities for Rural Tourism, which presented case studies of small towns and rural regions that have developed successful tourism initiatives. We’re very pleased by USDA’s development of a national pilot program to preserve and reuse older barns, an effort that builds on the National Trust’s BARN AGAIN! program. We’re now seeking an appropriation for USDA to carry out this initiative with partners across the country. Finally, we’re excited by the potential for participation by the U.S. Forest Service as we prepare for the 2005 National Preservation Conference, to be held in Portland, Ore.

Resolving Conflicting Points of View

Conflicting points of view are inevitable in our relationships with federal agencies and our goal is the keep the lines of communication open and to look for positive solutions.

As preservationists we know the value of keeping post offices in small town centers and in rural communities, and the Trust’s relationship with U.S. Postal Service has sometimes been adversarial in the past. We’re looking forward to a more positive and more productive association in the future.

Similarly, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we’re very concerned about the CARES (Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services) implementation and its potential impact on historic resources. At the Eisenhower VA Center in Leavenworth, Kans., which we listed as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2000, some two dozen historic buildings that were originally threatened with demolition are now slated for preservation and reuse. We’d like to work with the agency to ensure the same sort of happy ending at other VA sites across the country.

We also have a growing concern for the preservation of prehistoric and historic sites on public lands in the West that are threatened by escalating energy development. To protect archeological, cultural, and sacred historic places from energy development projects, such as mining, and oil and gas drilling, the Trust would like to encourage BLM to comply with Section 106 prior to leasing federal lands for energy development. This approach puts the issues out in the open before any commitments are made, so the parties are aware of what they are entering into.


Add to this list the many partnerships that take place at the state and local level between preservation organizations and public agencies, and I suspect we could come up with an impressive array of accomplishments, tempered only by the occasional areas of friction that are bound to develop in working relationships. Our job as preservationists is to seek out and take advantage of the many available opportunities to engage public partners in our efforts to preserve and protect our nation’s heritage.

Publication Date: Summer 2004


Author(s): Peter Brink