Boom times tend to be the enemy of preservation in at least one important regard. They make it profitable to tear down the old and replace it with the new. Just look at downtown Atlanta, which almost feverishly has plowed under most of its historically notable buildings through the decades. Aside from the state Capitol, The Fox Theatre, Rhodes Hall, Margaret Mitchell's "The Dump" and a handful of other buildings, most of that city's past is, dare we say it, "gone with the wind."
Things played out differently up the road here in Marietta. Like Atlanta, this city was left in ruins by the Civil War. But unlike Atlanta, which rose like the proverbial phoenix immediately after the war's end, Marietta and Cobb had a much tougher time. The county was left so destitute, in fact, that it was not until seven years after the war's end that it could afford to build a courthouse to replace the one torched as Sherman's troops left town. And despite being a railroad town and attracting a smattering of tourists, the cotton-based economy here remained feeble up until the opening of the Bell Aircraft plant here at the outset of World War II.
However, there was a silver lining to those hard times, at least in terms of preservation. That is, there was little economic incentive to tear down the old to make way for the new. So the antebellum Kennesaw House, to cite just one example, survived and now houses the Marietta Museum of History. Had this been Atlanta or Chicago or any number of other places, a prime downtown piece of real estate like that might have been rebuilt numerous times by now.
But thanks to the current economically dire days, historic preservation is in the process of taking a direct hit in the state budget, which is under severe stress because of plummeting state revenues.
Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposed budget for the remainder of FY 2010 (which ends June 30) and FY2011, takes a crosscut saw for preservation funding. It eliminates most positions which are unfilled - a step that is hardly unexpected and hard to argue against, given the times. It also would axe:
* $400,000 from the tourism marketing department, which promotes the state's historic sites. It also will hamper planning and promotion for the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial activities.
* $50,000 from Civil War Trails, another tourism-related project, which would essentially eliminate all of its state support.
* $47,600 from contracts for Regional Development Centers' historic preservation planners.
* $30,000 from a contract with the Georgia Historical Society to install new historical markers.
* $25,000 for the Georgia Civil War Commission - thereby dropping its state funding to zero dollars.
Those cuts would follow on the heels of the sharp reductions in the FY10 budget, which cut the Historic Preservation Division's archaeologist's office by $179,000 and included a first round of cuts for the Civil War Commission.
It's hard to argue that preservation and historic tourism are higher priorities than paying teachers and public safety personnel. Keep your fingers crossed that the cuts go no deeper than those already suggested - and that the economy turns around soon.
Once revenue collections start going back up and the economy perks up, preservationists will be back to their more accustomed roll: that of shielding the past from imminent "progress."
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and co-author of the new "Then & Now: Marietta Revisited."