OUR OPINION: No extended tax funds for Spain House

By NEMS Daily Journal

The City of Tupelo should not sign a commitment obligating the taxpayers to any kind of 25-year agreement to maintain a relocated Spain House – the stately but crumbling structure on West Main at Madison. It has been a source of both public controversy and passionate preservation efforts since Calvary Baptist Church bought it and announced that it had no need for the century-old building and would tear it down – unless somebody’s else’s money relocated it.
Tupelo must provide $35,000 in order to secure a $175,000 grant through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but it also must agree to the 25-year maintenance commitment to get the grant.
The solution is obvious: Let the Historic Preservation Commission, which has allies as well as official members, become a fund-raising organization and find enough money – from any source except the city’s taxpayers – to guarantee the maintenance of the structure for 25 years.
It would seem virtually certain that an adequate endowment dedicated to preserving the Spain edifice – and perhaps others certified as equally historic and iconic – could as easily become the signatory/guarantor to get the $175,000 from the state, which is essential to get the ball rolling.
It is amply demonstrated that the U.S. government, which prints money for all of us, does not possess adequate revenue (or perhaps arguably lacks the will to apply the revenue it has) for preservation of the magnificent National Park system and the maintenance/restoration budgets for the official, awe-inspiring structures in our version of an imperial city, Washington.
Tupelo certainly cannot afford to head down the road of funding historic preservation long term.
Many of the national parks and the great-house sites like Monticello, like Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Redwoods, have large, tax-deductible support foundations to either fully maintain or close some of the gap between what the government provides, if anything, and what’s needed, but those foundations, it must be noted, are of national scope.
Tupelo has reached the point that historic preservation in the long term must be seen as primarily a mission of private philanthropy, not of the taxpayers.
The city has six months to move the historic Spain House off its current site.
Tupelo secured both the funding and a new location to accomplish the task, but the mayor first must sign an agreement with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History promising to maintain the house for 25 years.
It’s a stipulation of the $175,000 matching grant MDAH awarded Tupelo in December to move the house and stabilize it at its new site. But municipal leaders are appropriately leery of the commitment, saying it poses an unknown financial risk.
“It’s an old house, there’s no way of knowing how much money it will cost to maintain it,” said City Planner Pat Falkner in response to questions from the City Council on Monday.
The council must approve the agreement before Mayor Jack Reed Jr. can sign it. “We need to go into this with our eyes open,” Reed has said.
Although the Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission initiated the house relocation and will oversee renovation, the city so far ultimately is the responsible party – both legally and financially, but that obligation needs to end with what the city has done financially so far.
Council members will hold a work session Tuesday to discuss the matter and will invite members of the Historic Preservation Commission to the table. The discussion needs to center on a private endowment, not further financial involvement by the city’s taxpayers.
The Spain House has served as a residence, a funeral parlor and an office suite before being purchased by Calvary. It’s now vacant and failing.
The city has six months to act, and it should do so in the interest of taxpayers – not a single symbolic property.