A statewide preservation group says that Illinois’ historic landmarks could be threatened by the potential closure of the State Historic Preservation Office.
The budget cuts in the current fiscal year have cut the staff at the office, which falls under the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), from 33 to 14, causing a backlog of paperwork necessary to officially recognize historic sites and authorize local citizen organizations to begin the work of restoring sites in their communities.
By next year, the agency may no longer exist. Governor Rauner’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016 calls for moving the functions of the Historic Preservation Agency to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. A House committee approved legislation to do just that — as well as transform DCEO into a public private partnership and turn the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum into stand alone agency. About two thirds of IHPA’s budget if money associated with the library and museum. House Speaker Michael Madigan has been pushing to make high-profile Lincoln site, which is located in Springfield, an independent entity for some time now.
Rauner argues that folding IHPA into DCEO will provide budget savings and additional transparency. “The governor is committed to preserving Illinois’ history for future generations. IHPA is being streamlined into the tourism division in proposed changes to the DCEO. The historic sites will continue to be preserved, while saving the state more than $5 million a year,” said a written statement from Rauner’s office.
Bonnie MacDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, says the potential elimination of the State Historic Preservation Office is troubling because Federal regulations governing grants and tax credits require the existence of a state level preservation office to approve historic status and disburse grants. Landmark Illinois is a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve Illinois’ historic buildings and sites. The group is known for highlighting sites in need of help with it’s annual Most Endangered Historic Places list. This year, it used the list to highlight IHPA’s politically imperiled situation by including the State Historic Preservation Office.
Also included on the list were buildings in Cook County and the Chicago suburbs, and central and southern Illinois. The group called for the preservation of Mid-Century Modern houses throughout the state. “The greenest building is the one that’s already built,”says MacDonald. Additionally, the list calls attention to Historic building in River Edge Redevelopment Zones.
The zones are an experimental program designed to ease the financial strain of historic preservation and redevelopment in the cities of Aurora, East St. Louis, Elgin, Peoria, and Rockford. Sen. Steve Stadelman, a Democrat from Rockford, is seeking to extend the life of the zones. The law is presently set to expire on January 1, 2017, if Senate Bill 1642 is taken up, it would extend the program’s life to 2022.
According to MacDonald, uncertainty over the future of the tax credit has had a cooling effect on the purchase and renovation of historic landmarks in cities that have river development. This in a financial environment in which banks are exceedingly cautious in lending for properties in poor neighborhoods, which further increases the community disinvestment threatening the sites in the first place.
Landmarks Illinois estimates that last year Illinois saw $726.6 million in private investments for historical preservation, beating all other states in the Union. That investment provided 3,600 local construction jobs.
Republican Sen. Pam Althoff of McHenry says she sees historic preservation as an economic opportunity and is advocating for the creation of the Rehabilitation and Revitalization Tax Credit. Known presently as SB 1250, the bill would reduce the tax burden on owners or organizations supporting the refurbishment of aged structures.