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Newspapers and History are Siamese Twins


A tiny but dedicated core

The editorial wrestling match between preservation and profit defines this city. But behind the scenes, journalists and historians have a lot in common. Both belong to small beleaguered communities that do the best they can with shrinking resources. This newspaper (I called to check) currently has 32 full time news staffers. Still, that figure is just shy of the total number of fulltime employees in all the key nonprofit historic house venues in the city combined.

North_ChurchThe Portsmouth Athenaeum, for example, runs with five part-time and no full-time employees. Historic New England has three full-timers in this region covering seven Seacoast properties. Portsmouth Historical Society has two full-time staffers while Strawberry Banke Museum, with 38 properties to maintain, has 25 year-round full-timers. Some historic houses have no paid employees at all, while others depend on unpaid volunteers and part-timers who often work at rates close to minimum wage.

That comes, according to one estimate, to roughly 4/10ths of a full-time employee per historic property among our house museums. The return on that investment to the local economy is not easy to measure, but it is certainly money well spent. A new study by Americans for the Arts (AFTA) suggests that the cultural community generates $41 million annually for Portsmouth. Real estate rates remain stable, in part, because studies show that wealthy and middle-class Americans prefer to live and work near locations rich with culture. If you don’t believe me, ask your new neighbors why they chose to move here.

A darn good ROI

Channeling the late historian Dorothy Vaughan, I’ve often suggested that, without the ambiance of the city’s historic sites, Portsmouth would quickly become Anywhere, USA.  Tourism would shrink and our economy would suffer. It’s only a theory, but it makes sense. Portsmouth’s current and remarkably stable economic renaissance is directly tied to the cultural revolution of the 1970s and 80s when Baby Boomers began settling in Portsmouth. They followed in the wake of the historic preservation movement that began early in the 20th century and peaked with the opening of the 10-acre Strawbery Banke Museum in 1965.

We are now enjoying the fruits of a 400-year economic evolution. The once abundant natural resources of the Piscataqua region, mostly tall pine trees and fish, drew the early merchants who struck it rich. They died off or moved away leaving their gorgeous mansions behind. Those architectural resources survived, partly because Portsmouth became too poor to tear them down and the city did not, as FW Harford hoped, become an industrial success. The crumbling buildings attracted preservationists and architectural historians. Their work drew the artists, performers, and craftspeople. The artist drew the tourists who, in turn, drew in the restaurateurs, shop owners, and hospitality people.

Portsmouth is aged to perfection. But it is maintained by a delicate balance, as the Gundalow Company and environmentalists keep telling us. Pollution threatens. If the river goes sour, the whole thing might dissolve away.


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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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