Reinstate the historic preservation tax credit

PROVIDENCE, RI – One of Rhode Island's greatest assets is the respect we have for our storied past. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay says the General Assembly can nurture our state's historic architecture and generate jobs.

The talk at the State House these days is gloomy. State government is broke, public pension liabilities threaten our economic future and unemployment is still hovers in double digits.

But with all the focus on austerity have we forgotten about paths to prosperity? A prime example is legislation that would reinstate Rhode Island's historic preservation tax credit program, which spurs restoration of historic properties, creates jobs in construction and generates property taxes for our beleaguered cities.

Rhode Island's historic tax credit program started in 2001, when unemployment was low and times were good. It was frozen in 2008 when unemployment soared because it was draining too much tax money from state coffers.

The state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission estimates that the tax credits spurred $1.2 billion in restoration investments across Block Island to Burrillville and was especially helpful to our seen-better-days textile mill communities.

Among the projects completed under this program were United Natural Foods, a large distributor of organic products, that relocated from Connecticut to the American Locomotive properties in Providence's Valley section. And the half a dozen marine industry firms that moved into the restored Aquidneck Mill Building on the Newport waterfront. Plus the expansion of companies and homes at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket.

Historic tourism is one of Rhode Island's great attractions. Our tiny speck of New England has more federally recognized historic sites per capita than another other state. People come here from around the world to see our restored history, from the Newport Gilded age mansions to Woonsocket's Museum of Work and Culture.

But the gem of Rhode Island's historic preservation efforts doesn't lie in museums. What makes our state unique and keeps it from being anywhere else, USA is the way we have preserved historic neighborhoods and restored and reused old buildings. You can drive a Bald Hill Road anywhere in our homogenized strip malled nation. You can't eat a meal at the White Horse Tavern, the De Wolf Tavern or at the New Rivers Restaurant in Florida or Nevada.

Urban renewal, interstate highways and suburban sprawl spoiled the historic landscape of many an American city, but Rhode Island has spared the wrecking balls and preserved more of its past than just about any American state.

Others are catching on to the benefits of historic preservation. Every other state in New England except for New Hampshire has an historic preservation tax incentive program.

There are few sadder disasters than the fires that periodically level such precious pieces of history than the one that just destroyed the Woonsocket Rubber Mill complex.

As is the case with too many government programs, there were abuses with historic tax credits. What began as a modest program ballooned to costing the state $60 million a year in lost revenue. Poorly drafted laws and regulations allowed the credits to be used on projects of dubious provenance, such as restoration of the private Hope Club in Providence. And building trades union leaders have pointed out that some unscrupulous contractors hired illegal; immigrants and paid poor wages.

Now, the Assembly has a chance to reinstate the program in a more cost-effective manner that will spur economic growth at a time when we need to put Rhode Islanders back to work. Lawmakers now need to make an investment in a future that embraces a reverence for Rhode Island's past.

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