How Do You Move Stuck Projects Forward when the World Stops Moving? Tips for Preservationists during COVID-19

Photo of the North Brookfield Town House, an Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) preservation consulting project.
North Brookfield Town House

Historic preservation is tough under the best of circumstances. Add a global public health and economic crisis into the mix, and projects that normally would be considered difficult might seem downright impossible. However, the Coronavirus has also created opportunities for communities and nonprofits to address some of the thorniest and oft-overlooked obstacles impeding their preservation efforts. Here are ten tips for maintaining forward momentum despite a radically altered business and philanthropic environment:

1.      Visibility, visibility, visibility

Tell a compelling story. That’s the number one thing you can do to ensure that your project doesn’t vanish from public awareness. Take advantage of the fact that millions of people are stuck at home with little to do except surf the internet by ramping up your digital presence. Post frequently on social media, regularly update your blog, organize virtual educational events, and connect online with organizations performing similar work. Spend time now reminding people why your building matters so that when life returns to normal, you will resume your project with a larger community of supporters and potential strategic partners.

2.      Figure out who you are and where you want to go

Develop a compelling mission and vision for your project so that donors, government agencies, and potential strategic partners take it seriously. Many preservation organizations plunge into fundraising without a clear idea of what they’re raising money for. As philanthropic dollars are increasingly directed to other areas, now is the perfect time to clarify for yourself and others what your project seeks to accomplish. Basing a fundraising pitch solely on a building’s historical and architectural significance often is not enough to save the property. Instead, consider the following: Why does the building currently matter to the community? What kind of resource could the building become for local and regional populations? What municipal (or state or national) problems would rehabilitating the building address? Without pigeonholing the property into any particular use, try to articulate what kind of future you think the building could have, and why people should care.

3.      Get your house in order

Take care of all those mundane tasks you avoided or didn’t think to do when you were focused on fundraising. There are so many possibilities: digitizing handwritten documents; reading old, but potentially relevant, material about the building that no one has looked at for years; determining which entities are responsible for various aspects of the building’s upkeep, own the land it’s on, etc. In the process, you’ll fill information gaps, make resources accessible to others, and possibly uncover critical material that affects the course of your project. Housekeeping will make for smoother sailing during fundraising, permitting, or other processes.

4.      Get ahead of the legal issues

If your project involves a real estate transaction, lease agreement, or legislation, make sure you’re as prepared as possible for the negotiations. You don’t have to wait for the other party to research the relevant laws, draft legal documents, or revise existing ones. When virtual or in-person discussions are able to resume, you will be in a better position to advocate for your interests, and you won’t have to spend valuable time figuring out what they are.

5.      Plan for the best, the worst, and everything in between

Make sure your finances are sound, and if they’re not, be prepared. As the economy changes over the coming months, make frequent projections of the best-case, worst-case, and intermediate scenarios that could affect your organization’s viability and your project. Update your project budget regularly and determine whether any costly activities can be postponed. The Council of Nonprofits provides excellent resources and guidance around financial preparedness. (Also see a recent blog post on the website of AHF’s partner Graffito SP – it’s geared toward businesses, but is nevertheless relevant to nonprofits.)

6.      Advocate for yourself, your partners, and your tenants

Economic recovery – and the success of your project – will depend on strong leadership and generous funding packages at the federal and state level. Whether elected officials go far enough will depend on the level of public pressure placed upon them. Contact your representatives to advocate for the nonprofit, preservationist, museum, and creative arts communities, and (if applicable to your project) for whichever business communities your strategic partners and building tenants are part of. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and its subsidiary Main Street America provide advocacy opportunities on their websites.

7.      Apply for tax credits and available grants

If you’re already in the process of applying for grants or Historic Tax Credits (or New Market, Low Income Housing, or other credits), keep applying. The money for these programs has already been allocated and in all likelihood will be available despite the economic slump. Tax credits and other funding will increase the feasibility of your project and give it credibility. In light of the current situation, make sure to confirm the application deadlines with the funding agency.

8.      Check in with the institutions serving your project

Contact government agencies and businesses to learn whether the preservation-related services they typically provide are still available at this time. Examples of these services include environmental reviews, property valuations, building inspections, and collections assessments. Also check whether the entity that owns the building is willing to grant access to service providers during the pandemic.

9.      Negotiate deadlines

Work stoppages, supply line shortages, and shaky finances are enough to set any project back. Under the current circumstances, you may not be able to meet deadlines for payments or completed work set by financial institutions, government agencies, donors, contractors, or consultants. Negotiate with these parties to push back deadlines or defer payment. If necessary, check with your financial institution or local government for information regarding emergency loans.

10.  Be alert for stimulus bills

This crisis will eventually end, and when it does, government dollars will be needed to jump-start the economy. Adaptive reuse projects, such as AHF’s Hamilton Crossing project, benefited from the 2011 stimulus bill; it’s probable that money will be directed to similar revitalization efforts this time around, too. Stay alert for announcements of federal or state spending packages that could benefit your project – and make sure that you’re in a position to accept and use the funds when the time comes. Preservation projects in an advanced stage of predevelopment, with a concrete program, site control, and solid budget will be best able to take advantage of these opportunities.

Do what you can now to ensure that your project is as far along as possible when life returns to normal. Then you’ll be able to resume preservation work in earnest and in a better position to achieve a successful project.

Follow AHF on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn for preservation news and opportunities, and learn about our current projects, the Charles River Speedway and the Worcester Memorial Auditorium.

Let’s work together.