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  • A Developer’s Perspective:Embracing Diversity in Economic Development
  • Larry Curtis (bio)

Often people assume that preservation has one principal objective—to restore a building of perceived architectural quality to its once attractive physical state. They believe that historic preservation is simply about bringing buildings back to life. Yet this perspective neglects a crucial aspect about preservation. Buildings, and the surrounding communities, have a multilayered history that goes beyond architectural styles and bricks and mortar. Buildings are icons of an era past and symbols of uses long gone—a textile mill in Massachusetts, for example, or an automotive factory in Illinois. On a broader scale, these historic buildings also represent the people that constructed them and the residents that lived or worked in them. Transformations of architectural gems have to happen within the context of the people involved with them—many times this involves a diverse group of Americans.

This article focuses on ways that the diversity manifest in the historic sites and programs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and the historic preservation community (organizations both local and national) can—and should—be integrated into the business and economic side of historic preservation.

As a developer of historic properties, my company WinnDevelopment, has made a commitment to understanding what makes a building historic and how this history relates to the people who built it, the people who labored in it, the neighborhoods that evolved around it, and the people who could or should be involved in rehabilitating it. In short—to make diversity part of our work at all levels.

Most people care about diversity and, by and large, opportunities exist for all. Sure opportunities exist, but are they practiced? Maybe not as much. An article in Massachusetts’s Commonwealth [End Page 32] Magazine in Fall 2013, for example, notes that less than 1 percent of partners at Boston’s premier law firms are minorities. Similar numbers and percentages likely exist among developers of historic properties; however, these figures are harder to come by. This lack of diversity permeates the construction industry in general and most of the historic industry, despite the fact that we all value diversity.

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Before and after photos of Canal Lofts, a former industrial building that has been converted into apartments in Worcester, Mass.

Photo courtesy WinnDevelopment

Our development company, WinnDevelopment, and our parent company, WinnCompanies, has focused for more than four decades on developing strong ties to the neighborhoods and communities we serve. One of our specialties is property rehabilitation and turnaround. Urban revitalization is important to us and we strive to better our communities by working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and various state and local agencies. We are also experienced in acquiring and sensitively re-creating dilapidated historic structures into vibrant living or working spaces.

Although we are certainly not unique among for-profit developers in embracing diversity, we believe it is both good business and equitable to do so. For affordable housing developments, including rehabilitations of existing housing, new construction, or adaptive use of vacant historic buildings into housing (market or affordable), we take steps to make sure that our projects benefit those who live and work in the community. [End Page 33]

At WinnCompanies we approach every project with the goal of building partnerships and promoting economic growth within the community. We work hard to engage businesses that have been under-represented in the real estate field. Often our properties are developed using federal and state affordable housing programs (such as Low Income Housing Tax Credits) and initiatives. Additionally, we strive to achieve a minimum of 15 percent, sometimes 50 percent minority and/or women employment. We also strive to have similar multi-million dollar expenditures and percentages for minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs) and woman-owned business enterprises (WBEs) and suppliers that we contract with. This ensures that a greater percentage of the historic redevelopment expenditures flow back to the communities in which the rehabilitated buildings are located.

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WinnDevelopment reached out to local businesses, minority contractor associations and community organizations to encourage bids from minority...


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pp. 32-39
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