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April 21, 2008

History lesson | Greg Paxton, the new executive director of Maine Preservation, connects the dots between historic preservation and economic development

After less than a month on the job, Maine Preservation Executive Director Greg Paxton is off to a good start.

Even before he had officially made the switch as the head of The Georgia Trust in Atlanta to the Portland-based historic preservation nonprofit, Paxton, 58, got his feet wet earlier this year by helping to push a bill amending Maine's historic rehabilitation tax credit bill through the Legislature. The New Jersey native participated via conference calls in conversations about the bill with representatives from the Speaker of the House's office, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and GrowSmart Maine. "It was really terrific to see how well everyone was working together," Paxton says.

The state income tax credit, passed March 31 along with Gov. John Baldacci's supplemental budget, can amount to as much as 25% of the total cost to rehabilitate a certified historic building. The previous $100,000 cap per project has been increased to $5 million, and the credit now is fully refundable, turning the historic tax credit program from an underutilized resource into a real incentive for economic development that will attract both local and out-of-state investors, says Paxton. "This will level the playing field for Maine with other states that have a similar credit," he says.

Paxton spent 27 years directing rehabilitation efforts as the executive director, and then president and CEO, of The Georgia Trust, the country's second largest statewide nonprofit preservation organization. Now, he's bringing that experience to Maine Preservation, which uses educational forums, public policy advocacy and preservation easement initiatives to put the spotlight on the importance of historic preservation.

After wrapping up a successful $7.6 million capital campaign in Georgia, Paxton says he felt it was time for a new challenge. But the decision to relocate was as much personal as professional; Paxton, who vacations in East Boothbay and has lived in nearly every New England state, says that the area — and Maine in particular — "was really calling."

Though geographically different, Maine and Georgia have similar growing pains, Paxton says. Both have large rural sections looking to jumpstart their economic development. In both states, rehabilitation of one building in a community tends to have a chain reaction that stimulates revitalization around it, a phenomenon Paxton says doesn't necessarily occur with new construction. Rehabilitation also generally is cheaper than new construction, if done right.

But historic preservation is especially key to the development of Maine's economy. Seventy percent of Maine's buildings are 50 years or older, a proportion higher than in many other states, Paxton says. The recent Brookings Institution report "Charting Maine's Future" also touted preservation as an essential factor to maintaining Maine's quality of place, an important economic draw. "It's bootstrap economics that works in any community," says Paxton.

To that end, Paxton currently is working to develop a statewide revolving fund that would allow the organization to buy or acquire historic buildings and market them to sellers, with easements to prevent demolishing. He expects the fund to be up and running by next year. "It's a very important tool that will help us participate in real estate transactions rather than simply urging others to do the same," he says.

Paxton also plans to apply for a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that would allow the organization to hire a third staff person to specialize in field work and help dispel the myth that historic preservation means living in the past. "The buildings aren't intended to be museums," Paxton says. "They're for contemporary use that protects the historic fabric of the buildings."

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