Call it collaboration: Huntsville’s preservation successes a result of partnership

single-meta-cal May 12, 2017

These old buildings weren’t built by one person. Nor are they remaining alive and vibrant just because of one entity.

That’s the message from Jessica White, Preservation Consultant for the City of Huntsville, as May brings National Historic Preservation Month.

That will be exemplified on Tuesday, May 16 at a roundtable event at Campus No. 805. It will bring together representatives from the City of Huntsville’s Planning Department, Downtown Huntsville, Inc., the Huntsville-Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Historic Huntsville Foundation, whose executive director Donna Castellano will moderate the evening’s panel discussion.

The City Council is a key player, according to White, and various state, regional and national entities have been involved in preservation efforts in Huntsville.

The City of Huntsville has its Historic Preservation Commission, a 10-person board with particular oversight regarding the four locally designated historic districts – Twickenham, Old Town, Five Points and Alabama A&M University.

However, White’s role extends well beyond those areas and encompasses and encourages the preservation and – one of the latest trends for which Huntsville has been a model city – “adaptive reuse” of existing buildings. Two of the most noted include Huntsville West and Campus No. 805, both recently recognized in May’s “This Place Matters” campaign for having transformed vacant schools into successful new lives.

The Historic Huntsville Foundation, an organization founded in 1974 dedicated to the preservation of sites, homes and buildings, has been a significant partner to the City.

“Where do I even begin? Huntsville Historic Foundation and its Executive Director Donna Castellano have been instrumental in every one of our recent projects,” White says. “They’re able to donate matching funds and without HHF’s help, we wouldn’t have been able to move forward.” 

Historic Huntsville Foundation is a non-profit group and relies on membership dues, special projects, sponsorships and donations for its funding. One of its major projects is “Movies in The Park,” which takes place at Big Spring Park East. Movies are shown on a giant inflatable screen set up near Big Spring. They’ll be held on the second and fourth Thursdays in June, July and August and are free to the public.

The foundation has spearheaded preservation efforts in the city for decades and enjoys a “track record of accomplishment,” Castellano says. “People trust us. We have a 40-year reputation preceding us and I’m proud of that. One of the biggest assets we have is our reputation.”

Another asset is what she calls a “seamless” partnership with the City of Huntsville.

It’s an ideal relationship.

Historic Huntsville Foundation can do outreach that is perhaps less intimidating to a resident or a neighborhood association than it would be for a government agency to be the initial contact.

“We’re membership based and we can deal directly with neighborhoods who have ideas about preservation,” Castellano says. “There might be a building they see threatened and they come to us for help and information, and they feel comfortable doing that.”

It can raise funds from the private sector to support a project, where taxpayers might balk at that support.

And, from the other perspective, there is the power of government to make things happen, and the resources at hand. Castellano offers praise to the Huntsville City Council for its support and interest.

“Preservation ethic does influence public policy, and it’s great to have a point of contact,” Castellano says. Specifically, that point of contact is Jessica White.

“Sometimes,” Castellano says, “you go to a city with an idea and they look for ways to make it not happen. Jessica is always looking for a way to make it happen.”