The evidence of Delaware’s history is disappearing fast! Hardly a week goes by that we don’t see one of the historic buildings in our state being demolished or simply falling down through neglect. Or how often does some sort of new development take place on top of the sacred remains and evidence of the native peoples of Delaware? As president of Preservation Delaware Inc., these things affected me deeply. But I’ve been thinking about the potential to turn this trend around and how Delaware’s success in preserving our farmland might be duplicated to preserve our history.
At Preservation Delaware Inc.’s recent conference, I proposed the possibility of creating a new program in Delaware to preserve our historical and archaeological resources patterned after our successful farmland-preservation efforts. Such a program would utilize preservation easements placed on these historical resources to ensure that these would not be demolished or built over. Owners would receive a payment in return for permanently agreeing to keep these buildings in good repair and historically accurate. And there should be a significant public interest and support for such a program.
Like our farmland-preservation program, a new history-preservation program would depend on Delawareans understanding the value to all of us that is represented in our historical buildings and archaeological sites. Delaware is known as the First State, and that’s a title that can never be taken away from us! I’ve always thought that we undervalued the historical significance of our state, especially when compared to what I’ve seen in other Colonial states. Our history, and the resources that represent it, provide a backdrop in Delaware that sets us apart. All of us share an enhanced quality of life when our history is respected, the buildings and resources reflecting that history are preserved, and we can be constantly reminded of our shared stories. Such an appreciation of history is not just something for lifetime Delawareans, like me. I believe that the historical context of our state is especially important to the many newcomers to Delaware. We all are better off when our state’s history is intact, and we can look across our landscapes and on the streets of our small towns and our cities and see and feel our history.
But quality of life and history are not the only reasons to preserve these resources.
Perhaps even more important is that protecting our history provides an essential launching pad to a prosperous future. Protecting our historical resources provides an important component to our economic prosperity. Protecting and enhancing these resources provides a “magnet” for tourism. As I once heard, “People don’t take vacations in places that look like the places they live.” Indeed. Many tourists are attracted to areas with beautiful history and buildings and fascinating stories.
Historic buildings offer new opportunities for housing and keeping the “carbon investment” represented. Economists across the spectrum have recognized that America’s economic future will depend largely on high-tech jobs possessing high mobility. High-value employees in the future can choose where they live and will be attracted to areas with a superior quality of life. Companies of the future will choose such places to locate, or their employees will work remotely from such places. Delaware has many of these characteristics, and our historic resources can add to a quality of life that will attract high-paying jobs and companies.
Delaware’s farmland-preservation program and purchase of easements was recently ranked No. 1 among the states by the American Farmland Trust. We can use that program as a model to fashion something similar to help owners of historic properties voluntarily protect those resources for future generations.
I believe Delaware taxpayers understand and support the protection of our historic heritage. Our shared stories are worth the cost to protect them from destruction. Delaware’s farmland literally feeds America. Delaware’s historical and archaeological resources literally feed our souls, our future. Now’s the time to step up and ensure that future generations can look back to our time and say, “They were wise! They saved our history.”
Michael McGrath served for 28 years as chief of planning in the Delaware Department of Agriculture and managed Delaware’s nationally recognized farmland-preservation program. He is completing his term as president of Preservation Delaware Inc. and is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Editor’s note: This commentary is based on a presentation by Mr. McGrath at Preservation Delaware Inc.’s annual conference and meeting.