Columbia’s Historic Preservation Study Should Be Understood As PR, Not Policy
Last week, a study presented to the Columbia City Council explored the impact of Missouri’s historic preservation tax credit on the city. The report, funded by the Historic Preservation Commission, found that “historic preservation” had accounted for almost 5,000 Columbia jobs and more than $1 billion of “economic activity” over the last decade, with almost $100 million attributable to the historic preservation tax credit. Like any report of this kind, it paid the requisite homage to the dark art of “economic multipliers,” which we have criticized in the past.
In stark contrast to the study’s claims, official state figures actually show that historic preservation credits return 23 cents for each dollar the state spends. These tax dollars are often used on dubious projects of little or no public use, such as private mansions and at least one country club.
The main point I would like to highlight, however, is that the Columbia study was written explicitly to pump an agenda, a point that may not be immediately evident if casual newspaper readers just saw the headlines. The study’s authors were (refreshingly) transparent about this in the text of the study itself. Goal one on the study’s first page explicitly says that the report “will promote the economic development benefits of historic preservation to an expanded audience.” Goal two makes the study’s goals even clearer (emphasis mine): “This report will encourage tax credit eligible projects to homeowners and developers by promoting visible local examples.” And the “Vision Impact” outlined at the bottom of that page is clear that the objective sought is to preserve “historic areas” through “education, enforcement, and incentives” (emphasis mine) — namely, the HPTC. This is more about marketing than good policy, and should be understood as such.
We at the Show-Me Institute have seen this sort of report before, of course. Back when Aerotropolis was still a thing, I wrote about the National Center for Beef Excellence‘s “report” on whether it was “feasible” to “ship meat to China.” One would think that a state-funded group with “beef” in the name would make it clear that American beef was actually, er, banned in China. Alas, the NCBE attempted to pass off the study as objective when its only goal was to pump Aerotropolis.
That is, in the end, what is going on in Columbia, albeit with laudable transparency. There should be a vigorous debate about the merits of tax credits generally and particularly the historic preservation tax credit, but this report is only one especially biased side of that conversation. There should be no misconceptions about that fact.