How a nonprofit helps balance local growth with preservation

Drive or walk almost anywhere in our community and you will see signs of growth and new construction. It has made me curious about how best to balance historic preservation with economic development.

Preservation North Carolina is a nonprofit organization helping to make sure that we find that balance throughout the state.

I asked Myrick Howard, who has led Preservation North Carolina for over four decades, to share the challenges and opportunities that growth brings.

What does growth mean for historic preservation? It can be a great advantage or the end of much of our historic fabric. Currently, the growth is very lopsided. Our cities are growing, but many of the rural areas are not. A vacant lot in the Triangle can go for over half a million, but you can buy a historic mansion for $200,000 in other parts of the state. Some communities are begging for brakes, while others want to hit the accelerator.

In a growing area like the Triangle, how have you had to get innovative to preserve properties? A very strong tool we’re using often are preservation easements done by current property owners. It’s clear, perpetual and decisive, but it’s a one-by-one approach.

We’ve been able to lock down some pretty darn good properties in this way. In Raleigh, we’re seeing mid-century modern homes that are typically on a one-acre lot going away by the dozens. But we’re also seeing some longtime residents who want to make sure they don’t get bulldozed. You’ve got to have a love for the property, because you may not get as much money when you sell it subject to an easement.

If the dirt under your property has great value, your property is going to be lost without having a historic designation or an easement or covenant in place. We urge folks not to save that decision for the next generation. By then it’s too late.

How do historic preservation efforts differ in other areas of the state? The rural areas are focusing on the main streets, their downtowns. They are focused on tourism and economic growth. In eastern North Carolina, there is a town of 20,000 people where you cannot get cellphone service on Main Street. If you can’t do that, you can forget about economic development and selling houses. We really have an urban and rural North Carolina, and they both have different needs and expectations.

How do you maintain equity and justice in Preservation North Carolina’s work? We have been focused on learning more about the African American role in historic properties. It’s really interesting to learn about the history of buildings, who built them and under what circumstances. Some stories are awful, and some are amazing. Some of the main landmarks of Raleigh built in the late 19th and early 20th century used forced labor. Learning about this opens the door to important and necessary conversations.

We just debuted an exhibit called “We Built This” currently at Dix Park in Raleigh and will travel to the Historic Rosedale house in Charlotte and then the Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington. It is about the history and legacy of Black builders and craftspeople in North Carolina and tells the stories of the people who built and designed many of our most treasured historic sites.

Triangle Business Journal
By: Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, CEO of the North Carolina Community Foundation

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