Doug Black: Preservation IS progress — $18 million worth of homes, businesses

Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 2, 2016

By Doug Black

Why did we move to Salisbury 16 years ago?  It is simple. “Welcome to HISTORIC Salisbury.” Salisbury was a visually charming, affordable historic town near our grandchildren. Although grandchildren were the key, we could have selected any community within a 150-mile radius. But Salisbury was the right size, had the late 19th and early 20th century architectural charm, tree-lined streets, a symphony, colleges, a great library, historic focus, friendly neighborhoods, responsive city services; the quality of life we were looking for.

We volunteered as docents in the Dr. Josephus W. Hall House Museum owned and operated by Historic Salisbury Foundation, Inc., a local but nationally recognized 501.c.3 private non-profit providing preservation leadership and services to the city and county. One thing led to another, and we soon became actively involved in the stabilization and preservation of century old commercial and residential structures across the city.

I have often heard: “Tear that eyesore down, I hate it!!” or “You guys know you cannot handle that wreck, let it go!!”  Because of the obvious challenges, initially and emotionally I tended to agree. Preservation can be daunting; it is a lot of hard work. But upon reflection of past preservation accomplishments, the vision provided by others with more experience, and in consideration of the direction in which our society has turned with regard to a “greener” culture, I reconsidered.

I began to see that old structures have several layers of “value”: appearance, tax, utility, architectural-presence, location and cultural. All these and more add up to the potential for sustaining and improving quality of life and community identity: a sense of PLACE, a place with value, a place for living a good life, a place worth PRESERVING.

So, let’s review the preservation facts reflected in the steady accomplishments of Historic Salisbury Foundation over the past 44 years. It was incorporated in 1972 by concerned, generous, long-term Salisbury citizens and community leaders who believed their city was being modernized and commercialized out of existence by the “progress” introduced by new fast food restaurants and flashing neon signs.  It is a hometown, non-governmental organization run by home-town citizens, funded principally by local donations and grants with no tax dollars (local, state or federal).

Through word of mouth, shared concerns for the livability of the community, and relationship building, the foundation has been able to address, preserve and return to active service 111 structures: 18 business and 93 residential. These preserved structures are located throughout the city and county on 38 different streets and roads ranging from 1600 N. to 700 S. Main Street, from 429 E. Bank to 828 W. Monroe Streets.  About 85 percent of them are within nine of the 10 Historic Districts the foundation helped create and has actively supported.

What is all this “preservation effort” worth? Is it progress or does it impede progress?

According to official records, those 111 structures represent $18,193,606 in tax value that remains in the tax base. That is an average contribution of $413,491 per year since 1972. Those tax dollars pay for essential city services and improvements. Preservation initiatives also mean employment: jobs for skilled workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, painters, architects, and others. They provide volunteer opportunities that bring people of diverse backgrounds together to help improve neighborhoods. Further, hundreds, if not thousands of tons of mostly useable architectural material, some unaffordable or no longer available today (like pink granite), is NOT sent to the county landfill to rot. These unique structures are the bright and shining teeth in our community’s smile. When they are ripped out, the smile is diminished.

Are we lucky to be able to live in a place like Historic Salisbury? You bet we are. But luck has little to do with it; our current community charm and appeal comes from far-sighted vision and decades of hard work, cooperation and teamwork. If preservation has been good for Salisbury, shouldn’t we always ask ourselves, “Must we tear down this old structure?” The quick answer may be “Yes!” But, is it the best answer for the community or just the easy answer for a particular project? Does removal harm the long-term view, the visual charm and appeal of our community? Adaptive reuse is the key to preservation AND progress.

Doug Black lives in Salisbury.