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The assignment was — and still is — enormous.

Wrap your hands around all aspects of preserving Butte’s history — the buildings and houses, the millions of dollars involved, the private and public players and all the rules, regulations and red tape.

Then, set egos aside and agree on a preservation strategy for the nine square miles and 4,000 buildings that make Butte, America, the nation’s largest national historic landmark district.

And, oh yeah, make it a plan that will be followed, that will stick, for a good five or 10 years. Nobody wants another study that sits on a shelf collecting dust.

Now, after months of meetings, hundreds of hours of work and research and thousands of emails, the 12 members of the Historic Preservation Plan Committee must agree on a final plan by April.

There are still differences on what priorities should make the cut, what specifics to include and what should be done to keep the plan alive once the panel’s work is done.

The stakes could be high.

If Butte doesn’t carve out a more precise path for saving scores of its historic buildings and then follow it, some say, time and pigeons will take them down and the heritage of the “richest hill on earth” will erode away.

Chief Executive Matt Vincent set the bar high when he formed the group last June and the Council of Commissioners steered tens of thousands of dollars its way.

“My biggest goal here is we are going to come up with a practical plan that we can use to inform our decisions, something we can actually implement and keep alive,” Vincent said last week.

The panel’s members, who include developers, community activists, local government officials and the chancellor of Montana Tech, also hope the end product will have staying power.

So far they have identified 17 things they want done, including enforcement of building codes to curb blight, a marketing plan for historic structures, defining targeted areas for initial efforts and linking them to funding streams.

The goal now is to reduce the list further, to pin priorities down, and that could be the hardest part.

“We’ve had these wonderful conversations of what could and what should happen over the last six months,” said Jim Jarvis, who as Butte’s historic preservation officer has helped guide and support the panel’s efforts.

“Now it’s a matter of capturing the ones that really jump off the page,” he said. “We look at what resources we have to work with and whether there is staff or funding sources or support from the community.”

Without those things, some members say, the plan will be dead in the water.

“The key to success is a small, identifiable plan of doable, achievable goals – not a Bible, not 400 or 500 pages,” said committee member Tom Staples, who is active in several community programs.

Those must be tied to money sources, he said, and there must be some entity that will keep lobbying for the plan’s recommendations once the committee’s work is done.

Member Courtney McKee, a developer and owner of Headframe Spirits in Uptown, said the diverse group has worked together on a consensus basis to identify some key priorities.

But she says there must be an identified way for putting them in play.

“We can make the most phenomenal list of recommendations ever,” she said. “But if there isn’t a method for them to be implemented, then sort of all our effort has been for naught.”

The challenges and past approaches

The enormity of the group’s challenge is tied in part to the size of the pedestal Butte finds itself on.

There are about 2,500 individual properties or areas federally designated as National Historic Places, and some are so significant, they’ve been tagged as National Historic Landmarks.

And none of those is bigger, in terms of the number of properties, than the district that covers Butte.

There are about 4,000 of those properties in Butte alone, which grew to about 6,000 when the district was expanded in 2006 to include Anaconda and the Pacific Railroad.

Tom Capp, chief operating officer of development firm Gorman and Co., told the committee one of Butte’s strengths in potentially attracting more investors and developers in preservation and revitalization was the “very strong fabric of historic buildings in Butte.”

“I don’t think they have as many historic buildings in the state of Arizona as they do in Butte,” said Capp, whose company has helped redevelop several historical areas in the U.S.

But the scope of Butte’s historical treasures can be both a good thing and bad thing.

“It’s a blessing in that we have something really cool and a lot of it,” Jarvis said. “But it’s a curse in that, how do you manage something of that scale? What do you actually do to preserve and protect that?”

That’s been a big part of the debate.

Montana Tech Chancellor Don Blackketter, who is on the committee, said he hasn’t been a very active participant because of his travel schedule. But he’s adamant about focusing efforts on maybe 5 or 10 percent of the area’s 4,000 buildings.

He and some others say if you try to save them all with limited time and resources, you’ll save very few.

“The wind and the rains and fire and the pigeons will get them eventually, so you need to pick which battles you are going to fight,” Blackketter said. “If you don’t want to prioritize, then you guarantee a random process.”

Mick Ringsak, a Butte businessman and a former regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, shared similar sentiments with the committee.

He suggested a “triage” approach to saving buildings – identify a select group to save and don’t waste valuable time and money on the others.

There have been numerous studies on preservation and revitalization of Butte over many years, he said, but only a small percentage of past recommendations have been implemented. Many have been suggested over and over again with no action.

“In the 30 years we have been looking at this, not much has gotten done,” he said.

There seems to be some agreement on the committee for defining specific areas to target efforts, but finding consensus on what those areas should be could be tricky – if even possible.

Mark Reavis, an architect who has worked on Butte preservation projects, has balked at talk of casting some buildings aside. Some deemed unworthy have been saved by public outcries and then funding that brought them back to life, he said.

“The mantra that we can’t save every building is tiresome,” he told the committee.

The Time is Now

By federal rules, Butte was supposed to have a preservation plan in place decades ago. Even without one, numerous buildings – some with private money, some with public funds, some combinations – have been saved and given new life.

The Sears building, for example, is home to the Hennessy Market. The Metals Bank building is home to a restaurant, offices and condominiums. The old YMCA building has been purchased and could possibly become work and living space for Tech students.

But many old buildings – perhaps grand in Butte’s heyday – remain empty or barely occupied. Many are boarded up, some are crumbling and two of them – the Brinck’s and Deluxe buildings – await the county’s wrecking ball.

Millions of dollars, both public and private, have gone into preservation and restoration efforts. But much of it has been done on a hodge-podge basis.

Jarvis was four years into his job as historic preservation officer when the committee was formed last June. He said then that he had yet to determine exactly what the community wanted in preservation.

Having a community and its government on the same page, Capp said, is a key to getting private investors and developers to buy in. And he was encouraged about the efforts here.

“Butte seems to be putting its act together in a collaborative approach,” he said.

Vincent and Jarvis knew going into this latest effort that getting 12 people to agree on what they wanted in a game plan would be a tall order.

To help keep the discussions and work on track, and passions in check, two outside professional consultants in historic preservation were hired to guide and document the process.

To gain other perspectives and delve into the nitty-gritty, the committee sought insight from at least a dozen folks in the preservation field, including developers, architects, a construction manager, a tourism marketing specialist.

Among some of the other proposed “action items” so far are having an inventory done on all historic properties, creating a model program for preservation projects, and referencing the committee’s plan in Butte-Silver Bow government policies and programs.

Brendan McDonough, a Butte-Silver Bow commissioner on the committee, said the work so far has been productive and he believes the final product will indeed focus and guide preservation efforts.

“We have taken all the politics out of it,” he said. “This process has been the best process I have ever been involved in.”

The committee is expected to hold more meetings in the coming weeks to craft a draft report and then a final plan.

At this point, Staples said he is not sure whether the final product will be something that can actually get done with money and resources available.

But the committee members, he said, were all thoughtful and insightful and the effort so far has been valuable and educational.

“I would not speak to the outcome, but I really believe a great deal of myth has been nullified by reality we got in the presentations,” he said.

Vincent, who as chief executive got this whole thing started, said too many efforts in the past have lacked follow-through and implementation. He wants this to be different.

“There is a significant amount of money and an enormous amount of people’s time and effort that has gone into this,” he said. “Why on earth would you not use that to restore and revitalize your historic and economic resources?”

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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