Energy, beauty, business and hope bound the downtown squares of Texas towns. What's the historic commission have to do with it? Lots, say the folks on Main Street.
In early February, Texas governor Rick Perry presented his proposal to hack roughly $14.5 billion from the state’s budget. It looked like the fifty-eight-year old Texas Historical Commission, along with its nationally respected historic and greenspace preservation programs, was in peril. The state now pays for 20% of THC’s $100.15 million annual budget from the general revenue fund; under Perry’s plan, this funding would be suspended until at least 2013.
Granted, with Texas facing a budget shortfall estimated at 15-27 billion dollars, cuts are likely in most state agencies and programs. Yet to the surprise of some legislators in Austin, their constituents were swift to defend the THC’s work. House Appropriations member Rep. Raul Torres (R) of Corpus Christi was so stunned by the fuss when the topic came before the committee that he tweeted: “30 min + spent on Historical Commission spending needs….trails, courthouses, programs….Why?”
Public ardor for Texas Historical Commission comes, in part, from the professional support that the organization’s 220-person staff gives to communities seeking to capitalize on their authentic character, through efforts like the Texas Main Street Program (TMSP).
“There’s no way that Perry could know how important [the Texas Main Street Program] is or he’d have never threatened the agency itself,” said Britin Bostick of Paris, the Lamar County seat, in rural Northeast Texas.
Bostick serves as a member of the Paris Main Street Advisory Board and chairs the downtown economic restructuring committee.
“Most of the businesses near the square are small, independently owned,” said Bostick. “And, for the businesses to work, a lot of these great old buildings have to be rehabbed. But can you do that and still make money to support your family?” Bostick contends that the work to develop historic town properties is “is about helping young families and young businesses succeed in the heart of our community.”
Bostick credited the THC’s participation in a nationwide Main Street revitalization effort for “providing a necessary framework for us to build our downtown.”
That framework — the “Main Street Four-Point Approach,” trademarked by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Main Street Center — has been implemented in over 2,000 U.S. cites over the last three decades. It’s a design to help communities build local relationships and structures to support, sustain, enliven and celebrate their respective downtowns, by nurturing businesses through grant-writing, identifying buildings available for adaptive reuse, recruiting new businesses, and developing local incentive programs.
Mechanisms for assisting business owners include facilitating low interest loans and working with other entities to find funding and promote the downtown area. In Paris, the city’s Main Street Project board also helps secure volunteers for various family-friendly events and activities throughout the year that capitalize upon the built environment’s character–movies in the park, a pumpkin festival–as well as the farmers market.
“The outdoor movies is the single event in Paris that brings everyone together, whatever your age, race, income. We had more than 300 people a night last year,” said Bostick. “We sell concessions and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. When you see all those necklaces in that crowd and people thank you for your work, you know that you’re building community.”
It’s not just the locals that benefit from the board’s work, however. “Heritage tourism is important for us, because we hear all the time that people love our downtown architecture and the Culbertson fountain,” said Bostick.
It’s staff members of the Texas Historical Commission who coach Texas Main Street Program communities like Paris on the principles and techniques to fulfill their re-development plan.
Cheri Bedford, Main Street Coordinator for the City of Paris, explained that the THC has provided “training, community engagement/strategic planning, design services to the public and private sectors (property owners) by licensed architects, and economic development services,” at no charge to the town. The state’s contribution is crucial but advisory; Bedford writes that to her knowledge, “no state funds per se” have been invested in Paris through the historical commission.
The program’s core value, she said, “comes from engagement of the public and
private sector working together to promote their historic business
district, use and reuse of historic spaces,” in the interests of
tourism and whole lot more.
Through affiliation and partnership with the statewide Main Street program, Paris has secured significant grant funding, more than $600,000 from the Department of Agriculture Texas Capital Fund, Preserve America and other entities in recent years. “Actual reconstruction costs, training, research and architectural design are funded through private funds–businesses, downtown association dues, private donations, non-profit grant sources and, in some instances, local reinvestment zones,” Bedford said.
Bedford said that nearly $26.5 million in capital has been invested in Paris downtown development over the past 14 years.
In Texas, the THC has served as the statewide coordinating agency for the National Trust’s National Main Street Center since the program’s launch in 1981. The state of Texas—and Paris—were among the first state and community participants in the National Trust’s nationwide initiative. In the past thirty years, according to the THC website, Paris and 85 more participating Texas Main Street communities have “realized more than $2 billion in economic reinvestment” and nearly 25,000 jobs since the program launched. Communities range in size from under 1,000 to over 200,000 in population, although many of them are located in rural or semi-rural areas.
The THC web site notes that “proposed budget cuts for FY 2012 and 2013 may prevent the THC from accepting new communities into the [Texas Main Street] program.” At press time, it appeared that the agency, while no longer in danger of a full suspension, still faces a 77 percent cut in funding. With the state’s dire budget situation, it’s plausible that the idea of a full suspension of funds may pop up again. If it does, legislators may again encounter resistance.
“When I hear this kind of idea, I think it’s really short-sighted of our elected representatives in Austin,” said Bostick. “Maybe it seems easy to make cuts to the THC because, down in Austin, the agency’s impact isn’t so visible. But go to small towns and you’ll see it.”