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The power of a good idea

Mention the words "historic preservation" and people think of gilded mansions, crocheted doilies, and ladies in smocks leading tours.

But increasingly, preservation means business.

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In historic districts, vanishing downtowns are brought back from the brink by determined townspeople, local government leaders, and merchants.

Among preservationists, the assumption that because a building is old, it's automatically worth saving, has given way to a more practical approach.

Historic commissions are learning that the public is more willing to support projects in which old buildings are reclaimed for other uses, rather than set aside as museum pieces.

This lesson extends to redevelopment commissions, which look to business to provide the bedrock on which to rebuild.

Now, officials are more likely to help a shopkeeper secure a low-interest loan than tell him what color to paint his shutters.

Historic areas also have to show some economic chutzpah, and play a vital role in a town's financial, cultural, and social well-being. They have to provide an alternative to the convenience and vast parking lots provided by big shopping malls that, like magnets, lure people away from downtown areas.

One town that has reclaimed its historic birthright, and secured a place in the social and economic lives of its residents, is Grass Valley, Calif., the subject of this week's cover story (right).

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Such towns give "historic preservation" a livelier image.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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