Lessons from Maggie Walker

Washington can learn from Richmond’s creative use of historic tax credits.

Earlier this month, Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb and Rep. Eric Cantor introduced critical legislation to create jobs in the short term, provide our children with safe, modern schools and raise the platform for future economic success. The Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act will make previously unaffordable school renovations a reality and could be transformative for communities across the nation challenged by aging and deteriorating schools. This legislation is the kind of common-sense, bipartisan approach that we need more of in Washington.

This legislation would take to the national level a strategy I used as mayor of Richmond to help students and save taxpayer dollars. In the late 1990s, it became clear that Thomas Jefferson High School could no longer house its in-zone students as well as the magnet students enrolled in the governor’s school. The governor’s school program was operating with very limited resources, but the city had an idle asset available in the dilapidated Maggie Walker High School building.

In my role on City Council and then as mayor, I led a coalition that worked to use private money and historic tax credits to make the renovations affordable and eventually deliver the outstanding school we have today. Without these tax credits, the project would have been too expensive to ever get off the ground.

Currently, the historic tax credit program requires reuse of a building in a way that is different from its original function. This restriction is what currently hinders local governments from partnering with private developers to rehabilitate public schools.

In the case of Maggie Walker, we satisfied that requirement by shifting the building from a Richmond public school to a regional governor’s school. This was a creative way to work within current law, but it is not a solution that is readily available to other localities. The Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act will lift the prior-use restriction for school buildings, greatly expanding the number of schools eligible for renovations, bringing the costs of renovations down and making it possible to engage private capital to get the job done.

Many of the historic school buildings that could be renovated in this way once served as anchor institutions in their communities and can do so again. Since the opening of the Maggie Walker Governor’s School, the nearby Carver and Newtowne neighborhoods have attracted new residents and investment. The area has been a success story in Richmond, and I want to see every community in America have the same opportunity to reinvent itself around its schools.

As we wrestle with the need to create jobs in this economy, I advocate for the kind of “double plus” investments that create jobs in the short term and position us for future prosperity. Our federal government will need to make serious spending reductions to get the deficit under control, but we must also make smart investments that encourage economic growth.

Investing in education infrastructure is one of the best investments we can make because it puts people to work immediately building modern, safe schools and gives our children an opportunity for a world-class education that will prepare them to compete for the jobs of the 21st century. A commitment to quality education drove Virginia from a sluggish economy in the early 20th century to the national leader we are today. A national commitment to creating the world’s most talented, skilled and educated workforce will ensure our nation’s long-term global competitiveness.

I am encouraged by the bipartisan support this bill has received at the state and federal level. Here in Virginia the bill enjoys support from people like Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, who has done great work over the years to move the measure forward. In recent years, Congress has struggled to find common ground to meet our common challenges. The renovation of Maggie Walker required a bipartisan regional effort. And, as governor, I was able to pass Virginia’s largest investment in higher education facilities by working with Republican legislators. Virginia has shown that it is possible and necessary to work together to help our young people succeed. Washington owes it to them to do the same.

In Richmond we thought creatively and utilized historic tax credits to transform a vacant building into a world-class high school that created jobs and helped revive neighborhoods. Sens. Warner and Webb and Congressman Cantor have introduced legislation that will take this process to the national level, creating jobs and modern, world-class schools. Leaders of both parties recognize this bill’s potential, and I wholeheartedly encourage its quick passage.

Tim Kaine served as Virginia’s Governor from 2006-2010 and is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.


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