Protecting vestiges of local history isn't just about nostalgia anymore.
Such endeavors are evolving into marriages of historical preservation and economic development, say officials heading East Valley efforts to save and restore old and historic buildings.
Beyond their impact as a lure for tourism and sources of community pride, historic properties are becoming primary parts of downtown and neighborhood redevelopment plans in Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Tempe.
The projects are changing the mind-set that progress and reinvestment in downtown areas and neighborhoods mean tearing down all the old stuff, said Debbie Abele, Scottsdale's historic preservation officer.
Keeping the past alive for the future's sake is the guiding theme in Chandler.
“Our whole economic revitalization and redevelopment is about our Historic Downtown Chandler,’’ said Claudia Whitehead, who oversees downtown restoration projects.
The 20 downtown Chandler buildings now part of a designated district listed on the National Register of Historic Places form the core of an area where the city hopes to see new hotel, office, retail and residential development expand.
The master plan calls for the design of new development to reflect the architectural styles of the city center's historic structures, along with its pedestrian-friendly ambiance, Whitehead said.
Chandler's progress is getting a showcase this week. The city center's historic San Marcos Hotel (now the Sheraton San Marcos Resort) is hosting the largest historic preservation conference ever in Arizona, gathering more than 200 experts, officials and grass-roots advocates today through Saturday.
Much of the focus will be on “the economics of historic preservation and how it relates to smart growth,’’ said James Garrison, Arizona's chief historic preservation officer.
Chandler, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa are good examples of urbanizing communities trying to stay connected to their cultural and historical roots as they undergo rapid growth and change, Garrison said.
Scottsdale has passed some of the country's strongest ordinances to promote not only protection of historic properties but to safeguard archaeological resources that can be easily lost amid the rush of urban development.
Scottsdale established its own historic register in 1999 and has since put on the list 13 properties reflecting the city's founding years and its evolution into an arts center and tourist destination.
A complete renovation of the historic Valley Ho resort is one of the city's most anticipated downtown revitalization projects. It's expected to spark other efforts in the vicinity that could combine with the Valley Ho to put up a $40 million investment in redevelopment, Abele said.
Tempe has 21 properties on its historic register, and like Scottsdale is working to establish its first historic neighborhoods and solidifying financial assistance programs to provide incentives for property owners to renovate historic buildings.
Tempe has financially streamlined some of it redevelopment by restoring old buildings for new uses, said historic preservation officer Joe Nucci.
For instance, the Tempe Community Council now has headquarters in the house built more than a century ago by Benjamin B. Moeur, a former Arizona governor.
In the past seven years, Mesa has put five local historic districts on the National Register. More than 600 homes are now in historic neighborhoods. More than 30 individual properties and seven archaeological sites also have historic designations.
Mesa also is working to establish one of only several local building rehabilitation codes in the country designed to make it more affordable for private property owners to renovate their historic structures.
Greg Marek is Mesa's historic preservation and redevelopment director. “It's rare to see those jobs combined, because in a lot of places those functions have typically been at odds with one another,’’ he said.
Merging those efforts is paying dividends for Mesa, Marek said.
In some historic neighborhoods, property values have gone up 30 percent or more, he said.
Renewed vitality in once-aging areas “creates a ripple effect that encourages reinvestment’’ in business districts near those neighborhoods, Marek said.
Like Tempe, Mesa also is putting its old buildings to new uses. Historic Preservation Committee chairman Victor Linoff points to the former Irving School, built in 1936, that houses the Mesa Arts Center.
“The rehabilitations and conversions are sometimes the most practical solutions (to redevelopment),” Linoff said. “And it makes a lot of sense in terms of our increasing concerns about environmentally sensitive development.’’
Playing up local cultural heritage is the best shot most communities have for remaining distinctive, said Donovan Rypkema, a national economic development consultant who will speak at the conference.
Let historic character fade away and you lose not only tourism but visible signs of local civic pride that tend to draw investment interest from business and industry, he said.
Historic preservation isn't so much remembering past centuries as it is about shaping the 21st century, Rypkema said.
“It will be a big part of competing in the global economy.’’