Sometimes ideas trickle out from my brain as a result of things that I am working on. Sometimes these ideas are obvious to most other people, but still represent a great revelation to me.
My aha moment this past week came while investigating and writing about efforts to transform the SS United States, the last of the great ocean liners, into what I hope will become a mixed-use development somewhere along the East Coast. As a result of my fact gathering, I came to the conclusion that one man’s preservation is or can be another’s man’s obstruction or even folly.
Now this should be obvious in the world of commerce. Some daft little field mouse holds up a construction project because it had the audacity to actually live in the place where men want to put a parking lot. Some real estate developer in the never-ending quest to build and profit wants to put a shopping center on a Civil War battlefield. These tensions between preservation/conservation and business, well, they just happen.
As a site selection consultant who no doubt has displaced some critters with the building of manufacturing plants and distribution centers, I have to be careful about what I say henceforth so that I do not come off as someone who is “against progress.”
Such an incendiary charge rivals only that of beating your wife, or in the case of some unfortunates, being beaten by your wife. (What do you want me to cook for you tonight, honey?)
A Time and a Place
I have to think that most of us would agree that there is a time and a place for preservation just as there is a place for reasonable regulation. (But I recently met an economic developer representing a southern state who postulated that there should be no regulation of business in any matter whatsoever. It is rare for me to happen upon true idiots.)
The problem with preservation is that we often do not agree on individual cases. For example, I think Civil War battlefield preservation is something that should be embraced by our nation, because it goes to the very heart of who we are or became as Americans.
We continue ad nauseum to argue and debate the causes of the “late unpleasantness” as some of my friends in Alabama would call it, or “the War of Northern Aggression” as the more bold would assert. (I learned a long time ago not to participate in such conversations as they can quickly descend into something akin to duels.)
But both sides would agree that battlefield preservation, on the historic ground where their ancestors fought and died, is a worthy cause. And I would agree.
I Like Whistle Pigs
And keeping in my preservationist mold, I am also in favor of national parks, state parks, wildlife refuges, bald eagles, blue herons, California condors, and wild horses. Heck, I even have affection for the less majestic critters – possums, ground hogs (aka whistle pigs) and armadillos to name a few.
But I am not in favor of what happened to my brother, who while living in California maybe 10 years ago or more, had to apply to the state for permission to have a dead or dying oak tree cut down in his backyard. Heck, I don’t care if the tree was healthy or not, it was his backyard.
“Jim,” I told him when I was living in Birmingham. “If you lived in Alabama, I would be over this afternoon with a chainsaw. And we would have firewood for the winter.”
There is something to be said for property rights, and I think we sometimes forget that.
Having said that, I do believe in preserving and conserving our natural and cultural resources, because these precious things that will often speak about us as a people. And I think that is pretty important. That’s why I like to cast my eye on mountains and rivers, old home places, battlefields and historic buildings. It’s even why I go poking around junky antique stores.
And now, my eyes have been further opened about preservation and conservation. Now, one day I hope to see and walk along the decks of the SS United States, the last of the great ocean liners. She had a stellar 17-year career, before being taken out of service in 1969. She still holds the record for the fastest transatlantic passage, set on her maiden voyage in 1952.
I would encourage you to read the story, soon to be published by the good folks at Site Selection magazine. You may agree that is one very worthy preservation effort. I hope this ship finds a fitting home and remains with us because, again, she speaks of us and to us as Americans.
My Ox or Your Ox
Yet, this whole notion of preservation might also be viewed in terms of whose oxen are getting gored. If preservation stymies your development plans, then you might see it as another just hurdle, a real pain in the backside that has to be dealt with. Truly, I sympathize and can relate.
But I also know of a story that is still being told today in Birmingham, Ala., a place that I called home for many years. Well before I moved to Birmingham, the historic Birmingham Terminal Station was torn down in 1969. I have seen pictures of it, and old photos of it were still hanging on the walls of Birmingham restaurants when I moved away in 2007.
The old train station was something to behold, an architectural masterpiece, covered in intricate tile work and featuring a skylight of ornamental glass. But it was demolished in the name of progress for a redevelopment project that never took place. Essentially, the preservationist lost out to what amounts to empty ground today. Now no matter how you cut it, that is a tragic story. I think your most hardened business people in Birmingham, (and most of them are not hard at all), would agree.
This whole idea of historical and cultural preservation is also an economic development story or a strategy, as historic buildings and neighborhoods can serve as a focal point for increased commerce. Indeed, some communities have come to embrace the concept with good results.
In the case of historic port cities such as Savannah, Ga., or Charleston, SC., it is the historic charm that makes them both drawing cards for tourists. We want to see, touch and feel history. And savvy business people know that we’ll pay good money to do just that.
The point is that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition to each other. Sometimes, they can truly complement each other. Sometimes you can preserve/conserve and make a buck, too, as a result.
You, Too, Can Be Smart
A very trendy word and concept of late is “sustainable,” which means different things to different people, but it’s almost always a good word to sprinkle in your professional conversations to show that you are in the know. Here are a few examples that may help you get noticed at your next business reception.
Good example: “Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness.” Or try this one on for size: “Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.” Or finally, “Development without a historic preservation component is not sustainable.”
I guarantee you that if you start saying those things in the right setting, and people will flock around you and start nodding, even if they don’t have a clue what you are saying. But you can also blow your chances at being viewed as wise and on the cutting edge. Don’t say this: “Hey, George, how was that sustainable hot dog that I gave you? You know, it was recycled from egg cartons and old sneakers.”
But as I mentioned, people involved in preservation efforts and economic/real estate development do not have to be at each other’s throats. Sometimes very workable solutions can be found by just bringing the right people together, even if they have divergent interests, or maybe I should say, especially if they have divergent interests. Just give them ground rules – no cussing, biting or gunplay – and get out of the way.
Or sometimes all you need is a good charrette, which brings me to another story.
A Good Charrette is Hard to Find
I was living in Birmingham and was in the midst of my first stint at being the all-knowing and wise, sage-like consultant. I had just left the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. So we’re talking the late 90s.
So I got this telephone call from a woman who said that she was with the local regional planning commission and that she wanted me to come to a charrette.
I cleared my throat and mumbled, “Excuse me, maam, a what?”
“A charrette,” she replied. “We want you to come and participate.”
“Well, thank you very much for the kind invitation, but the stringband that I’m in, well, we only play old hillbilly music. We don’t know any French music. But I might be able to put you in touch with fellow who plays cajun fiddle.”
“No, no, no, Mr. Barber. A charrette is a creative planning session to develop ideas to address problems plaguing our community. We would like to get your views on how to solve the traffic problem along on U.S. 280.”
“I would widen that sucker.”
“I would widen it. You know, add some more lanes. People are sitting in their cars moving at snail’s pace, because the dang road can’t handle the traffic volume. So I would just go ahead and add more lanes.”
“Well, that certainly is a novel idea,” she said. I could tell that somehow she was dissappointed. Maybe she wanted me to save it for her upcoming charrette.
“So when is this char-rette going to happen?”
“We don’t quite know just yet, but we’ll be back in touch with you soon,” she said. Now, it seemed like she was in a hurry to get off the phone.
Well, I thanked the lady for her call, but, you know, I never heard from her again. Maybe I should have suggested a charrette on how to go about planning for future charrettes, as this certainly was a subject of great importance that deserved years of proper study.
I do believe that road was eventually widened.
Dean Barber is the principal/owner of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at email@example.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com