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Historic preservation grants endangered

A Jan. 15, 2008, file photo shows a room inside the newly renovated Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C. The grant program that helped restore President Lincoln's summer cottage and hundreds of sites across the country is on the current administration's chopping block. (AP Photo by Jacquelyn Martin)
A Jan. 15, 2008, file photo shows a room inside the newly renovated Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. The grant program that helped restore President Lincoln’s summer cottage and hundreds of sites across the country is on the current administration’s chopping block.
(AP Photo by Jacquelyn Martin)

By Brett Zongker
AP Writer

Washington — As Hillary Rodham Clinton was leaving the White House, she asked Laura Bush, first lady to first lady, to continue one program if nothing else — the historic preservation program, Save America’s Treasures.

Bush said she knew about the project and pledged to see it through.

Now, the grant program Clinton created that helped restore the original star-spangled banner, the flag commemorated in the U.S. national anthem; the bus in which Rosa Parks became a symbol of black pride by refusing to follow Alabama law and move to the rear; President Abraham Lincoln’s summer cottage in Washington; and hundreds of other historic sites across the United States is on the Obama administration’s chopping block.

“The unfortunate thing is we had no warning” the program was being wiped out of President Barack Obama’s budget, said Bobbie Greene McCarthy, who has overseen the program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. “It was like being hit by a truck.”

The program has paid out nearly $294 million during the past decade to more than 1,100 different sites and generated at least $377 million more in private money, according to the National Trust. The National Park Service administers the program, but the nonprofit trust is the chief advocate and helps coordinate applicants.

Historic preservation advocates have shifted into survival mode.

They argue the program, with its relatively meager federal backing of $30 million annually, has created more than 16,000 jobs across the country at a cost of about $14,000 each. They point out the White House’s federal stimulus package is creating jobs at a cost of $248,000 each.

At the same time, the program has become a favorite pot of money for members of Congress to pay for pet projects in their constituencies. Lawmakers have sent home money to restore small-town movie houses and county courthouses.

Budget watchdogs have been critical for years because, they say, the process rewards political muscle.

“That certainly makes it a less desirable program from a budgetary perspective because it means it’s inviting waste into the system,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s supposed to be competitively awarded. Why would you then reserve all this money that is then just a fiefdom of powerful members of the Appropriations Committee?”

The Office of Management and Budget reported as much in its justification for eliminating the program. Save America’s Treasures and a related program called Preserve America “lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts,” according to the office.

Because the Obama administration has been generous to arts and cultural programs, it was surprising to see the programs cut, said Richard Moe, the National Trust’s president. Their contributions were cast in doubt without giving program managers a chance to respond, he said.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state sought $250,000 to help restore The Rainier Club, an elite Seattle social club with politically connected members. It was considered historic by local standards but was not recognized as “nationally significant.”

The grant request was not paid after it drew media scrutiny, but it called into question whether other requests were granted regardless of the criteria.

Part of the problem was each congressional office was setting its own criteria for the program.

“Up until a couple years ago, it was pretty haphazard,” McCarthy said. “Frankly, I don’t think they’re necessarily abuses … as much as just not recognizing what the program’s requirements are.”

The program’s creator, now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been informed of what is happening, McCarthy said.

Advocates are calling on friendly ears in Congress and may try to reach current first lady Michelle Obama.

“I don’t think it’s too late,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying everything.”

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