If you have ever participated in a neighborhood cleanup, donated to save a historic building in your area, or traveled to a city just to enjoy its history, you are a member of a specific group. You may not even know it.
These are the acts of Local Preservationists.
According to research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, there are now 15 million Local Preservationists in the United States, with 50 million people interested in contributing to causes to save historic and precious places throughout the nation.
Omaha is one of these places that have a swelling uprising of concerned preservationists. While many neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations strive to protect history, many residents are unaware of the importance of preserving these vibrant areas.
Recognizing a need to both support these organizations and protect historic sites, Omaha By Design implemented a project to gather input from residents about increasing support for preservation.
“We were interested in historic preservation because groups were having trouble recruiting new members,” said Connie Spellman, Director of Omaha by Design. “We gathered a group of 30 members representing 15 groups for a meeting to look at what they were doing in their efforts, their challenges and future plans. What we found was obtaining volunteers and funding was imperative for these organizations to keep working on preservation efforts.”
After speaking with the group, the results were analyzed and Omaha by Design realized a need for an outside group to help set a guide for strengthening preservation efforts. With funding secured by the Iowa West Foundation and Omaha by Design, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) was hired to help assess how to improve preservation efforts in Omaha and Council Bluffs.
“The NTHP created a report based off the input of the existing preservation groups and residents who were interested in preserving historical sites,” said Spellman. Using online data, personal and phone interviews and focus groups, the NTHP gathered the results into an assessment report. From the results, the group found three major themes: Preservation is not a community priority, the movement lacks vibrancy and preservation tools are underused, and existing policy barriers are limiting preservation activity.
Their recommendation is a “preservation makeover,” for the entire region, moving away from a focus on losses and instead examining the success of current preservation efforts.
Three makeover strategies were suggested to help local organizations and neighborhoods with their missions to preserve and protect.
Updating the image of preservation is important for recruiting new members. “We need to start focusing on the positive aspects of restoration as early as possible,” said Spellman. “I think of it as residents not being aware of the value of green space until a massive warehouse superstore is built and the space is gone. It is something we need to focus on right away.”
Through supporting organizations that work to save historic buildings and golden neighborhoods, Spellman feels Omaha as a city will feel the positive effects. Collaboration is key for nonprofits and neighborhoods to build on their current efforts.
Developing a smarter, more sustainable preservation infrastructure will help build the power of restoration groups, “develop alliances between organizations and create the Metro Heritage Council to plan activities and carry out short-term goals,” the report recommended.
Without funding many local activists would be lost in the preservation game. “One of the ways we are looking to help these organizations is with the Historical Tax Credit,” said Spellman. “This will help all the groups and the community. It has been introduced to the legislature as LB 888. It will be an important way to build the effort with the support of local government.”
Effectively implementing a set of incentives to facilitate preservation results is the final recommendation, and perhaps one of the most critical. These include developing new incentives, refine existing planning tools and implement new methods, such as the adoption of form-based conservation overlay districts to zoning laws.
Providing inspiration is one way to make these recommendations become reality. “Neighborhoods are looking at how they can attract new residents and preserve character,” said Spellman. “Omaha has so many great neighborhoods from Dundee, to Florence to Benson, that all want to keep their uniqueness. Preservation is what makes places where people want to live, work and play.”
Take a look around downtown Omaha and history will unfold block by block. The historic Omaha Building has now been redesigned as the Kutak Rock law firm. The Tip Top apartments bring a pop of youth amongst aging industrial buildings lining Cuming Street. Omaha is realizing the value of both the built and natural environment as the city continues to grow.
“Saving a historical site is not just about preserving a building, but heritage,” said Spellman. “Historic sites are important for the identity of the city. It is something we need to be cognizant of to teach future generations the value of heritage.”