A Reflection on the 2010 10 Most Endangered List

The soon to be demolished Jackson County Resource Center

Our volunteer Advocacy Committee is gearing up for another listing of Minnesota’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places. Nominations to this annual program are due in a matter of days, and based on the feedback and interest that I’ve received so far, we will have another diverse group of sites from throughout the state to advocate for in 2011-2012.

It seems fitting that we should start this annual process by reflecting on the successes and failures of last year’s listed sites. In brief, three sites have moved solidly towards the SAVED column: the Garrison Concourse received over $1 million in Federal stimulus funds for masonry restoration, which will begin this spring; the Samuel J. Hewson House, Minneapolis, was purchased out of foreclosure by Bell Mortgage and is receiving HVAC, electrical, and plumbing upgrades in preparation for being put back on the market later this year; and a bonding referendum was approved by voters on Nov. 2, authorizing the county board to proceed with renovation plans for the Todd County Courthouse. Six of last year’s 10 Most Endangered are still up in the air, including Wesley United Methodist Church, the Great Northern Railway Depot in Princeton, the Dodd Ford Bridge (which was the seed grant winner at the (Anti)Wrecking Ball and also received a Legacy Grant to undertake a structural engineering study, but has yet to gain the full support of the Blue Earth County Commission), Southeast St. Cloud Neighborhood, the Bessesen Building, and Minnesota’s Oldest Dairy Queen. Regrettably, the Jackson County Resource Center in the old Jackson High School building is in the process of being demolished, despite the best efforts of the newly formed Jackson Preservation Alliance.

From an advocacy perspective, the situations facing the Todd County Courthouse and Jackson Resource Center are worthy of an exercise in “compare and contrast.” Why was one group successful in advocating for preservation, while the other was not?

Both the Todd County Historical Society and the Jackson Preservation Alliance launched extended public information campaigns, feeding a steady stream of letters to the editors of the local newspapers. The Todd County advocates asked the owners of the county’s Century Farms and township supervisors to support their efforts to preserve the courthouse, and they credit this support with “changing the societal norm” and helping other citizens embrace the idea. The Jackson Preservation Alliance built an impressive network of support, with meetings attended by up to 140 people and significant monetary donations. Public opinion appeared to be on the side of preservationists in Jackson County, too—shortly after the 10 Most list was announced, a bonding referendum to replace the historic building with a newly constructed resource center failed by a whopping 1657 to 717 and seemed to indicate that the building would be saved.

The Todd County Board had one or two members who strongly supported preservation of the courthouse, a couple who were perhaps indifferent but willing to be persuaded, and one who ultimately voted against the renovation. Materials prepared by the county administration stressed the potential for job creation in one of the most rural, impoverished counties in the state, but forthrightly acknowledged that support of the bonding referendum would result in a property tax increase. The referendum passed on the same ballot that elected mostly Tea Party candidates to public office.

In contrast, the Jackson County administration was stalwart in its efforts to demolish the school and build new—the commissioners ultimately decided to fund demolition and construction of a smaller resource center using reserve funds instead of borrowing. The Jackson County Board had only one member who supported preservation, and he was regularly overruled by the other commissioners and county administration. The JPA filed a lawsuit against the county in accordance with the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), but the case landed in the lap of a preservation-unfriendly district court judge who dealt the JPA its final blow. Ultimately, I think the composition and inclination of the county boards were significant factors in how these two preservation battles played out—and were largely out of the preservation advocates’ control, at least at this late stage of the game.

Despite setbacks like the one in Jackson County, PAM’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list remains one of our most visible and successful programs, and each year we try to strengthen its effectiveness. In 2010, we added the (Anti)Wrecking Ball as a venue for announcing the list and training local advocates. We will expand this program this year by doing additional training and outreach to the affected communities, and we hope that you will join us in supporting these local preservation advocates. Mark your calendars for the second annual (Anti)Wrecking Ball on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, and monitor our website, Facebook page, and/or your inbox for further details.

by Erin Hanafin Berg, Field Representative

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