Historical society director to promote preservation

William Laidlaw

William Laidlaw, Bexley resident and executive director of the Ohio Historical Society, believes that the future is embedded in the past.

And not just in our collective experiences, but in the area of jobs and economic growth, and even in protecting the environment.

He now has another podium from which to preach that message, after being named the State Historic Preservation Officer by Gov. Ted Strickland.

"It makes sense to locate that office here. We’re about conservation and preservation," commented Laidlaw, who has headed the Ohio Historical Society since 2003.

He takes over the duties of preservation officer from Rachel Tooker, the historical society’s deputy director, following other states which have elevated the profile of that position.

"In my new role I’ll aggressively promote that every Ohio community can use historic preservation principles to stabilize neighborhoods, provide affordable housing, stimulate private investment, bring people and businesses back downtown, attract tourists and strengthen community pride," Laidlaw stated in a news release.

For Laidlaw, preserving historic buildings is important, first, because of their contribution to the identity of a community.

"The buildings are often icons of these places," Laidlaw said.

One of the preservation office’s responsibilities is to nominate sites for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Buckeye State has the third-highest number of properties on the National Register, behind New York and Massachusetts.

But there is something else hidden inside the bricks and mortar – energy that needs to be harnessed and maintained to revitalize local economies and restore the environment, Laidlaw pointed out.

For every $1 million that is spent on historic preservation, 20 or more jobs are created, he said.

Last year, Ohio was the nation’s leader in completing 168 rehab projects, a $155 million investment that created 8,000 jobs.

Restoring old buildings, rather than tearing them down and building new structures, is also a way of promoting the trend toward "going green," Laidlaw explained.

"There is energy imbedded in these buildings, and it’s important not to lose it," he said. By tearing down a building "you’re throwing away spent energy and expending new energy to replace it."

The historical society has a "Building Doctor" presentation that teaches residents how to make repairs on older structures. A presentation is scheduled for Bexley later this year.

Another responsibility of the preservation office is to certify projects for federal and state tax credits.

Income-generating buildings are eligible for a 20 percent tax credit for preservation efforts. That program was initiated in 1966 through the National Historic Preservation Act, and has resulted in $31 billion being spent on historic preservation.

Ohio has accounted for $1.5 billion of that investment, or 5 percent of the total among the 50 states. It ranks among the top three or four states in the number of projects approved each year.

Projects have included warehouses in Cleveland and Cincinnati that were turned into condominiums or hotels.

The state historic tax credit, enacted last year, provides a 25 percent credit.

When the law went into effect July 2, Laidlaw talked to the people applying for the credit, and 95 percent said they would not have been able to apply without the legislation.

State legislators are in the early stages of discussions about making public buildings eligible for tax credits for preservation efforts, according to Laidlaw.

County courthouses are among the structures that are in danger of being lost, Laidlaw observed. "Some of these buildings are right out of movie sets. And they are often in the center of these towns. When you’re saving these buildings, you save the fabric of the towns."

School buildings are another place where energy-conscious principles can be applied.

When officials calculate the cost of renovating buildings versus constructing new facilities in outlying areas, they sometimes fail to take into account "hidden costs" of transportation and rising gas prices, extending utilities and providing police and fire protection, Laidlaw said.

Historic preservation is all in the family for Laidlaw, whose wife, Donna, is a consultant for the commission planning for the renovation of the 102-year-old Jeffrey Mansion in Bexley.

Bexley could be eligible for state assistance through the Certified Local Government grant program, and a meeting has been set with state officials to pursue this.

It’s not all dollars and cents for Laidlaw, who took the head position at the historical society after working at Case Western Reserve University’s business school and managing a higher education association in St. Louis.

His many duties include visiting the 60 designated historic sites around the state, talking to local residents and learning about a history that stretches thousands of years, from Native American mound builders to Neil Armstrong and the moon landing.

"It’s like reading a good book every day," Laidlaw said.

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