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Paul Scott comment: "What do Bill Murray and historic preservation in Winneshiek County have in common?"

Posted: Tue, Mar 5, 2013 4:09 PM

In the movie "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray plays someone who finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day again and again.  I have had a similar experience reporting on efforts to save historic buildings in Winneshiek County.  Someone asks for permission to tear down a building, opposition arises to that request, but the permission is granted over the objections of a small band of people interested in historic preservation.

It seems like we, just like Bill Murray, are doomed to be stuck in this time loop—unless we, like him, find a way to produce a different outcome.  Let me suggest three ways this might be possible:

1)    Start a fund drive to raise money for a revolving loan fund for preservation projects. 
     Part of the problem supporters of historic preservation are having now is that the only suggestion they have for saving a historic building is by having taxpayers foot the entire bill.  Anyone who has been paying any attention to politics lately can guess how well this suggestion will go over.  If historic preservationists could put up most or all of the funds for these projects, they'd get a much better reception from elected officials, who are reluctant to approve of spending taxpayer money so a building can be used as a place to give massages or hold Tai Chi classes, as was suggested.

     Besides, raising money from private donations is a way of showing that supporters are serious about the issue of saving historic buildings.  There's nothing worse than listening to someone talk about how important something is—and then learning they have declined to make a donation to it.

2)    Develop a priority list of vulnerable historic sites and buildings that should be saved. 
     Decorah's Historic Preservation Commission is discussing this issue Tuesday night.  It's a necessary step because not all historic buildings are equal.  Yes, we'd like to save every historic building, but we return again to issue of having the money to pay for the task.  The Winneshiek County Historic Preservation Commission compiled a list of all historic buildings in the county when it was formed in 1985.  Now's the time to update that list, along with some kind of ranking to determine which buildings are the most critical to save.
3)    Start forming coalitions with other organizations with similar values. 
     One of the worst problems right now for the cause of historic preservation in Winneshiek County is the in fighting that has been occuring among some of the groups.  That's the wrong approach.  Even if historic preservationists can't agree among themselves, they need to agree to present a united front to the public.  Then they need to start talking with other organizations willing to join in the preservation effort.  For instance, arts groups like DartCo and tourism groups like WCCVB are sympathetic to the value of historic tourism.  Having a proposal that has wide-ranging support makes it more likely to win governmental approval.  Right now governmental leaders complain that public hearings about proposed demolitions "draw the same crowd of eight people."  They're right—which means work needs to be done by historic preservationists to win over other groups to their cause.

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