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February 23, 2013

Inaction not a path to preservation

RICHMOND — In this column six weeks ago, I warned against complacency about preserving the county-owned Miller Building and Old Creamery on Irvine Street, a stone’s throw from the courthouse.

However, even I was surprised by how soon the buildings, both about 200 years old, were reduced to heaps of rubble. The rubble may be cleared soon, but the heaps of regret and recrimination may linger a bit longer.

Preservationists thought they had received a commitment from Judge/Executive Kent Clark a few years ago not to demolish the Miller Building. But, Clark said Friday that promise, made four years ago to members of the Madison County Historical Society was made with the expectation the society could procure outside funding to preserve it. (The county purchased the Old Creamery at auction Dec. 8 but had owned the Miller Building for a number of years.)

People come away from even recent conversations with different understandings of what was agreed to, but such misunderstandings grow greater with time.

The call for at least another year’s delay, issued during a special historical society meeting Jan. 24, went unheeded by county government. There wasn’t a public vote by the fiscal court or even a last-minute warning that the building’s fate had been determined. Instead, Clark presented everyone with what the French call a fait accompli.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, one man expressed fear of an unannounced demolition. One lady offered to lay in front of a bulldozer to block the destruction. That’s probably why the decision to demolish the buildings was kept quiet.

Friday, after the buildings were down, the judge/executive said he believed historical society members expected the county to fund the preservation, but it was clear he had expected them to find the money. Responses to a recent question on the Richmond Register’s website showed a large majority against spending local tax money on preserving the buildings.

Talking past each other got no one anywhere, and four years without acquiring a funding source appears to be as long as Clark would wait.

There is little use now in expressions of regret or even outrage, although I’m sure some will work against Clark’s future political ambitions, if he has any.

The best we can hope for now is that the county will use the properties in ways that will be assets to the downtown Richmond economy and perhaps pay homage to its heritage.

Clark said he would meet with me Monday to talk about the county’s future plans.

One lesson to be learned from this is that delay or inaction is not a path to preservation.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, historical society president Jackie Couture said 23 of 65 buildings identified in a 1976 survey by the National Register of Historic Places no longer existed. Some had been destroyed by fire, but most had been demolished. Now two more are gone.

Those of us interested in preservation must not waste time or energy regretting what has been lost. We must work diligently to identify which remaining buildings are worthy of preservation and can feasibly be saved. Then we must figure out how to pay for preservation during a not-so-prosperous time.

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