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A historic proposal: Professionals weigh in on call to move preservation office

A screen capture showing the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/mnpreservationoffice/)

Gov. Mark Dayton wants to remove the State Historic Preservation Office from Minnesota Historical Society control, and place it beneath the Department of Administration. While the governor argues the move would reduce inefficiency and increase accountability, others — including Red Wing professionals familiar with SHPO — are not so sure.

"The Minnesota Historical Society is an independent nonprofit. By moving SHPO underneath the governor's office, there is potential for conflicts of interest on certain projects," said Dustin Heckman, executive director for the Goodhue County Historical Society. "The point of the National Registration Act was to save and preserve historic properties as they are and should be, not according to the whims of any particular administration."

The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act established the National Register of Historic Places, as well as corresponding state historic preservation offices. Minnesota's preservation office was established in 1969, and unlike 48 other states, has never been an arm of the state government.

"A lot has been made of the fact that only Minnesota and Ohio have preservation offices independent of state control, but what isn't mentioned is that other states view our system as an enviable model," Heckman said.

Unlike the governor's allegations, Heckman's experiences with SHPO have been positive.

"I've never gone through a review process, but when I ask their staff general questions, I usually receive responses within 48 hours," Heckman said.

The Goodhue County Historical Society acts as a consulting party on local projects that involve the Historic Preservation Office. Heckman also serves on the Grants Review Committee, a standing group that oversees federal grants for preservation work across the state. Grants have been used to repair Oakwood Cemetery and other Red Wing and Goodhue County projects.

Steve Kohn, planning manager for the city, also sits on the review committee and deals with SHPO often.

"Red Wing works directly with SHPO on local preservation issues, including surveys, historic designations, training and educational projects," Kohn said.

Currently, SHPO is organized within the Historic Preservation Department within the Minnesota Historical Society.

"The city has a great relationship with SHPO and the Minnesota Historical Society. On a daily basis, SHPO shares resources, information and professional knowledge within the larger preservation department," noted Kohn. "I would be concerned that separating from the Minnesota Historical Society would negatively impact this working relationship and efficiencies. In my opinion, SHPO and the Minnesota Historical Society work very well as a team."

The governor's proposal comes months after the Historical Society, against Dayton's wishes, voted to restore the original paintings to the capitol rotunda.

"The governor's office has said that this has nothing to do with the capitol art," Heckman said. "But, it's hard to look beyond that simply because of the timing of when it came out."

The governor's office, and the legislators carrying the bill, have been adamant that the move is about improving accountability and efficiency, nothing else.

Bills calling for the reorganization are currently in both the House and Senate.

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