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Street Talk

In last week’s column, I wrote about Renee Kuhlman and her daughter’s visit to Water Valley. Renee does political advocacy work for the National Trust for Historic Places. The Trust, as it is called, is also the parent organization for National Main Street of which your Water Valley Main Street Association is one of 1,500 accredited towns.

The Trust was created by congressional charter in 1949 to support the preservation of America’s diverse historic buildings, neighborhoods, and heritage through various programs, historical resources, and preservation advocacy. This week’s column content is one of an advocacy effort for the last two years of which Renee was a critical part and how that result helped the Valley.

Renee works Capitol Hill. She deals with legislation pertaining to preservation and economic development through preservation. Her mission, along with her colleagues Mike Phillips and Shaw Sprague, is to advocate for preservation efforts. They are Water Valley Main Street’s voice, as well as speaking for all those other Main Street towns across America, in Washington DC. 

I first met Renee, Mike, and Shaw in May of 2016 at a National Main Street conference in Milwaukee. I told them of the recent Mississippi effort re-energizing its historic tax credit after it had figuratively died.  Being fresh off that team effort and with a big win for Mississippi’s Historic Tax credit, I told them the state story of bringing that back.

 They told me if the Republicans took the executive office and kept the House and Senate, there was a tax reform effort driven by House Speaker Ryan that would eliminate many economic incentives in a clean sweep of the tax code. Sweeping away the good, the bad, and the ugly without so much as a critical look. That one of the best of the good, as in the 35-year old (Reagan era) and very successful federal historic tax credit (HTC), would be dead. And downtown Water Valley would be screwed.

I remember leaving them and walking the three city blocks back to my room very depressed, for I believe the combination of state and federal historic incentives, small as they might be, are a nearly essential component and key to significant developments in Water Valley’s near future.

I cursed politics and all the BS that goes with it, cursed the politicians who say one thing, as they support Main Street, and then flat don’t care. Back in my room I wrote a message to the Mississippi team that we might be needing to fight again.

The Mississippi team was led by Amber Lombardo and Lolly Rash from Mississippi Heritage Trust. They joined with Renee’s team and put out a full force effort directed at the Mississippi’s congressional delegation. With several Washington DC trips, with lots of local advocacy and press, it worked. Mississippi was the first state to have its entire congressional delegation commit to supporting and improving the preservation tax credit.

In May of 2017 National Main Street put together a group of Main Street directors from each state to form an advocating group.  To this group, Renee laid out the scenario of how tax reform bill would go through congress. No one knew for sure if the HTCs would be eliminated, so the effort was pro-active, but somewhat in the dark, also.

The kind of crazy thing was I don’t think the majority of the congress knew the details either of tax reform, such was the secrecy of the six people who made the tax reform bill. 

The six were Speaker Ryan of Wisconsin; Representative Kevin Brady of Texas; Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director. They were not talking details, only broad concepts.  It’s hard to imagine that such a big impacting legislation was being hushed up.  When the initial version of the bill HR 1 was released in November 2017, the HTCs were not in it. So, the 35-year track record of economic development via preservation success was dead and with that several big projects in Water Valley’s downtown.

It was at this time Renee and those helping in this went into warp drive. Re-connecting with congress people across the country to re-introduce the HTCs into the bill. The response was tepid, for the top political juggernaut pushing for a quick passage of the bill with no discussion seemed to overwhelm most legislators. Renee heard that Senator Cassidy from Louisiana asked the question how would the loss of HTCs hurt small towns? The response from Louisiana Main Street directors was dramatic and convincing. Cassidy re-introduced the HTCs into the bill, with some slight modifications, and it was part of the bill when it signed December 22.

 So, when Renee was here two weeks ago I showed her the up and coming projects that her efforts in saving the HTCs had saved. Big projects like the Big Yank coming back, smaller ones like the rehabilitation of the original Davidson School. Projects that bring jobs, education, and a vibrant economy back to Water Valley. In the political rush to change things, it seems the small places are easily forgotten. People like Renee, and the team members she worked with, have not forgotten that small towns, like details, still matter.

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