SPEECH: 2011 Main Street Conference Closing Plenary

Remarks by Stephanie K. Meeks

Thank you all for coming.  And hello to all the folks watching us online or following us on Twitter at hashtag “msconf.”

It’s my great pleasure to be here with you today.  I know that some of you may not think of yourselves this way, but as Main Street leaders, you are all ambassadors for preservation in your local communities. You do the work day in and day out that it takes to build a preservation ethic and help people understand the connection between historic preservation and economic development.

We’re tremendously grateful for your efforts, and I wanted to talk a bit today about some of the ways we can collaborate to build support for both the Main Street network and the cause of preservation.

We’ve been talking a lot at the National Trust lately about how to tackle the challenge of making preservation the dynamic, visible, broadly inclusive movement we all want and need for it to be. I’ve talked with many of you, and your colleagues in preservation organizations nationwide, and I’ve heard you identify three key areas of focus.  Some of you may have heard me talk about these areas before, and I’ll be mentioning them often in the coming years, because I believe they’re central to our success.  They are:

  • The need to make preservation more accessible
  • The need to make preservation more visible
  • And the need to ensure that preservation is fully funded.

I’d like to talk a bit today about how the Trust and the Main Street network are working together to advance our shared goals in each of these areas.

Accessibility

The first area I wanted to highlight today is accessibility. It’s our job as preservationists to protect America’s story, in all its richness and diversity.

We all share a piece of that story.  Yet too many people don’t understand preservation.  They see it as something removed from their daily lives, or not reflective of their cultural heritage.  So our first challenge is to make preservation more accessible to people—to build an even broader grassroots movement.

All of you have a critical role to play in that effort.  We’ve been doing some marketing research at the Trust, and what we’ve learned is that one group in particular, the local preservationists, are of central importance in our efforts to build the movement.

You all know these folks well—they’re your friends and neighbors, the people you’ve been talking to for years about the connection between historic Main Streets and a vibrant local economy and community.

These local preservationists are important for several reasons.  For starters, they look much more like America than the preservation movement as a whole. They are younger and more ethnically diverse, which is tremendously important given how quickly America is becoming a truly multi-ethnic society.

I gave a speech in California a few weeks ago about the importance of engaging diverse communities in preservation and in it, I talked about some striking statistics from the 2010 census, including the fact that for the first time ever, less than half of all three year olds are Caucasian. All the growth in America’s child population is from so-called “new minorities,” primarily people who identified themselves as Hispanic or Asian.

Here in Iowa, some projections show the Hispanic population increasing by more than 250% in the next 20 years, which would make the Hispanic community roughly 10% of Iowa’s population.

The multi-ethnic future we’ve been talking about for years is finally here, and I believe we have both a moral and business imperative to respond to it. The organizations that are still vibrant and relevant 10, 20 and 50 years from now will be the ones that embrace these changing demographics and respond to them.

There is tremendous potential for the Trust and the Main Street community to share our lessons learned as we reach out to diverse communities. Here in Iowa, for instance, the National Trust and Main Street Iowa teamed up the week on a productive session with Hispanic and Latino business leaders and Main Street coordinators.  The conversacione, as we called it, was chaired by Norma Ramirez de Miess, a senior program officer at Main Street and Tanya Bowers, our director for diversity.

It is part of a national series of conversaciones hosted by the National Trust, which are helping us to understand the needs of the Hispanic and Latino communities and to partner with them more effectively.

Visibility

We’ll keep sharing the lessons learned from these events, and we look forward to hearing back from you. Your feedback through vehicles like the Main Street Trends survey is tremendously valuable for us.

Through the most recent survey, you told us some wonderful stories about projects that are helping to make the case for preservation in your communities. You’ve heard some of those stories from Doug and others this week, so I’m not going to repeat them here.

But in general, you’ve told us that your outreach efforts are making progress.  However, we’ve heard from you, and we know ourselves, that making the case for preservation—and its economic, environmental and social benefits—remains an uphill battle. Which brings me to the second point I wanted to mention today: visibility.

Too often, preservationists are perceived as the ones to say “no, you can’t do that.” We’re seen as the ones who hold back change, rather than the ones who jump in and find ways to adapt and reuse historic buildings.  I thought I’d read a quote from the trends survey that sums it up nicely:

“Our Village is very preservation oriented, almost to a fault. The perception of many is that preservation means NO CHANGE at all. For our Village to grow and flourish, that perception needs to change. They need to be educated about the fact that preservation is adaptive re-use and that if the village is not a growing, thriving thing, it will fail.”

We’ve made it a priority at the National Trust to tackle this perception problem. We’re commissioning new research, reaching out to new partners and working on a national visibility campaign to create stronger awareness for historic preservation.

It is one of my goals in this job to shift the perception of preservation, to make people inside and outside the field think of us as the ‘movement of yes’ rather than no.

My hope is that the Trust’s visibility work on the national level will support your efforts at the local level, so that it’s easier for you to make the case in your communities. We saw how that could work last year, with the Small Business Saturday promotion with American Express.

AMEX capitalized on their national media platform to encourage people to shop at local businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They had more than 1 million people ‘like’ the event on Facebook, and it brought a wonderful spotlight to local, Main Street businesses.

It was a perfect fit for the Main Street network and despite a quick turnaround, you pulled off some fantastic support, including mayoral and gubernatorial proclamations, and official events in Washington State, Massachusetts and here in Iowa in Cedar Falls. That event drew more than 3500 people and generated considerable local media coverage.

Funding

The more we can do to raise the profile of preservation, both locally and nationally, and make it more broadly inclusive and accessible, the more effective we’ll be in the third area I wanted to mention—which is funding.

I know all of you struggle with chronic funding shortages, and this spring has been an especially difficult time in terms of state budget shortfalls for preservation. I want to assure you that the Trust is working in partnership with preservationists and advocates at the state level to defend important preservation funding sources, including Main Street programs.

Thus far this year, we’ve worked with our partners in 49 legislative battles in 29 states, including efforts to protect Main Street funding in Arizona, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina. We consider this legislative advocacy work some of our most important, and we are working hard to make the case for preservation with decision makers facing tough choices at all levels of government.

Main Street programs offer some of the most compelling proof that preservation works as a tool for economic development—and a very efficient, cost-effective one at that.

The Main Street network has an important role to play in building the preservation movement, and I look forward to working with all of you in the years ahead to make our work more accessible, more visible and better funded.

I’m tremendously optimistic about the future, thanks in large part to the extraordinary energy and commitment of the people I’ve met over my first year in this job.

Veteran Managers

No one embodies those qualities more than the people I’m about to introduce. I’d like to ask all the people whose names appear on the slide behind me to join me here onstage. These folks have been working as executive directors of Main Street organizations for 20 years or more. It’s a great honor to recognize your service here today.

On behalf of all of us at the National Trust and the Main Street network, thank you for all you’ve done to make your own communities stronger, and to bring back Main Streets across America. We’re all tremendously grateful for your leadership and dedication. Please join me in giving them a round of applause.

2011 Main Street Leadership Award

And finally, I’m pleased to present the 2011 Main Street Leadership Award. Over the years, this award has recognized individuals, institutions and federal programs that have made a significant difference in revitalizing Main Street communities. This year’s recipient is the US Department of Agriculture, in recognition of their outstanding partnerships with rural Main Streets nationwide.

In the past 5 years alone, USDA’s grants through their Rural Community Development Initiative and Rural Business Enterprise Grant have helped Main Street programs and projects in more than 15 states. USDA funds have supported food kitchens in Wyoming, downtown branding development in Delaware and local training sessions in more than 30 Main Street districts here in Iowa.

Through their staff, loans and grants, USDA is fueling growth and innovation throughout the Main Street network.  Please help me welcome Dallas Tonsager, USDA’s Undersecretary for Rural Development, to accept this award.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
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