Preservation school could foster economic growth

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 22, 2010

NATCHEZ — Historic preservation education isn’t just a feel-good endeavor; it’s about economics, a Colorado college professor said Thursday.

“There is a huge historic rehabilitation boom going on right now,” said Robert W. Ogle, pointing out that federal, state and local tax credits are big drivers of that.

“The one you have in Mississippi is awesome because it includes residential properties.”

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As dean of career and technical education at Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colo., Ogle developed the school’s historic preservation program.

He is in Natchez this week to advise state and local leaders on the possible creation of a Mississippi Preservation School in Natchez.

Ogle met Thursday night at the Historic Natchez Foundation with a group of approximately 35 interested citizens, preservationists and community and government leaders.

“This is the first community that I’ve worked with that I have to use two hands to count the number of core partners you may have,” Ogle said.

Those partnerships will be key and may include the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Natchez National Historical Park, the Historic Natchez Foundation and perhaps Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

At the moment, Ogle said, 78 percent of the historic preservation programs in the U.S. are at the graduate level.

That’s a problem since most students who enter the program have no prior preservation experience.

“We’ve done a good job of teaching people to talk about preservation, but we have very few who can execute preservation,” Ogle said. “If (students) learn the craft, the sky is the limit on their earnings potential.”

Nationally, the market for historic rehabilitation and maintenance is enormous — approximately $5.5 trillion — annually, he said.

The school would teach real world, hands-on skills that were formerly taught by craftsmen who handed down their skills to apprentices.

“We can’t go back to that old-fashioned model,” Ogle said. “It just won’t work. The demand is too high and the supply is too small.”

His research shows that visiting historic sites is the third most popular activity in the U.S., behind shopping and outdoor activities.

Investing in historic preservation is better for the community economically, he said.

“In every category, working on an existing property had a better economic impact than building new,” Ogle said.

Today, state and local leaders will continue to meet with Ogle and others to consider how and if Co-Lin might fit into the plans.

Co-Lin Vice President Teresa Busby said she was excited by the discussions.

“We’re very positive about it,” she said. “It’s needed here and we know that.”

Ogle said if state and local officials decide to develop a preservation school the timeline could vary, depending upon how much the partners push and support it.

“I’ve seen this done in six months, and I’ve seen it done in years,” he said.

“I don’t think this is something that will drag on forever,” Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said. “Either we’ll do it quickly or we won’t.”

Mayor Jake Middleton attended the meeting and said the idea was worth pursuing.

“I think we should take this and run with it,” he said.