Budget cuts put hold on history

Tim Reamer knew that his city had a history.

As the director of economic development for the city of Buena Vista, Va., Reamer saw a chance to get the business area of the 6,500 person town listed as a national historic district, and he took it. He called Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources and within 18 months, two blocks of Buena Vista carried the label of national historic district.
 
But Reamer credits the Department of Historic Resources for guiding him and others through a complicated process fraught with excessive paperwork and legal hurdles.
 
“Without them it would be unlikely that we would have a historic district,” Reamer said.
 
Now, as Virginia deals with one of the worst recessions in recent history, cutbacks at the department have forced this agency to lay off four full-time employees and freeze part-time hiring.
 
The 2007 budget for the agency stood at nearly $6.2 million, but fell to $5.6 million the next year. The dollars have crept back up to about $5.8 million for 2010, but still far short of what the department would need to satisfy the volume of requests.

Randy Jones, the director of administration for the Department of Historic Resources, said that the agency has had to trim staff, reorganize its historic regions and have forced them to prioritize projects based on their time sensitivity. For example, a building facing threat of demolition would be dealt with ahead of a family farm waiting for historic status.

The department is also in charge of acquiring, processing and digitizing historic records and documents, and has seen that number increase from 6 million records and items in 2006 to more than 12 million in 2009.
 
Courtesy the Department of Historic ResourcesCourtesy the Department of Historic Resources
 
The department has reduced the number of hours its public archive is open, and has had to lay off a staff archaeologist charged with keeping track of nearly 6 million historic artifacts and documents.
 
“The bottom line is that everyone has to wear different hats and pick up other jobs,” Jones said.
 
Jones has seen the requests climb for everything from historic certification to cultural reviews of construction sites–even during the recession–partly because of projects spurred by the economic stimulus.
 
“We really don’t have the staff to handle that,” Jones said. “We’re taxed as it is.”
 
The department also helps establish state lands, and easements on historic properties such as Civil War battlefields or historic community buildings.
 
Jason McGarvey, an administrator for the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, has worked with the Department of Historic Resources before on collaborative conservation projects. McGarvey’s organization would be in charge of maintaining historic lands and natural areas, while the department would document and protect historic buildings on the property.
 
In August, this was Ingles Ferry Farm in southwest Virginia. But now with the economic downturn, McGarvey said that budget cuts were forcing a lot of state agencies to cut back and prioritize, and that the Department of Historic Resources was no different.
 
“The attitude will be more ‘let’s wait and see until next year because we have higher priorities this year’,” McGarvey said. “We are always underfunded for the demand that’s out there.”
 
But as demand continues to increase and the recession continues to drag the state’s economic fortunes down, Jones said that most people are ready for the worst.
 
“I think everyone anticipates it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Jones said.