The Colorado State Historical Fund, established by the 1990 constitutional amendment that legalized gambling in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek, mandates that a portion of gaming tax revenue goes to fund historic preservation projects throughout the state.
Since being established in 1991, the fund has disbursed approximately $266 million to thousands of historic preservation projects throughout the state.
Colorado’s program is easily the largest in the country in both number and value of grants.
History Colorado administers the fund as “a statewide grants program.” The organization is a curious amalgam of bureaucracy and nonprofit, a 501(c)3 charitable organization that is also an agency of the state under the Department of Higher Education. The fund’s mission statement is somewhat opaque: “To foster heritage preservation through tangible and highly visible projects for direct and demonstrable public benefit.”
So who gets the dough? According to History Colorado’s website, all funded projects must relate to one or more of the 2020 Action Agenda goals:
• Preserving the places that matter;
• Strengthening and connecting the Colorado preservation network;
• Shaping the preservation message;
• Promoting the benefits of preservation;
• Weaving preservation throughout education; and
• Advancing preservation practices.
Those goals are laudable, but an examination of past awards seems to show that most grants go to sophisticated recipients who understand the system and have the skill, patience and resources to navigate the state’s bureaucratic obstacle courses.
History Colorado publishes an 84-page grants application handbook on its website, meant to guide applicants through the process. To an amateur, it’s a complex and foreboding process, unavailable to most potential applicants.
Private owners of historic properties are ineligible for State Historical Fund grants, unless they can find an eligible nonprofit or local government entity to sponsor, monitor and oversee the grant. Moreover, eligible properties must be in a national historic district or listed on the national or state register of historic properties — and listing any single property is expensive and time-consuming.
So while there are tens of thousands of arguably historic structures in El Paso County, only a relative handful qualify for SHF grant funding. Colorado Springs’ Westside has a diverse and extraordinary mix of historic, privately owned residential and commercial buildings, but none have received SHF funding.
“For a homeowner,” said George Eckhardt, who oversees Colorado College’s remarkably successful SHF grant program, “it’s a daunting and expensive challenge.”
Since the fund’s initiation 24 years ago, El Paso County has received 158 grants totaling nearly $10.6 million. The city and county of Denver, by contrast, has received 625 grants with an aggregate value of more than $72.6 million.
Northern Front Range counties have cashed in as well. Boulder’s 215 grants have garnered just short of $9 million; Jeffco has accepted $8.4 million for 191 grants and Larimer’s 172 grants were good for $9 million.
The southern Front Range counties also did well. Pueblo’s 99 grants have been worth nearly $7.3 million, while Las Animas has brought in more than $3.5 million from 73 grants.
The disparity between Denver and El Paso County isn’t as great as it may seem, though, since $30.2 million in grants to renovate the State Capitol were included in Denver’s list.
Yet, Denver still outraised us by 4 to 1, while Boulder, with a far smaller population base, raised almost as much.
Why? Is it because we have proportionately fewer historic sites, structures and eligible projects, or is something else in play?
In comparing grants received by Denver with those going to El Paso County, two things stand out.
Denver has a much larger applicant pool. Excluding the state government’s $30.2 million raid of the fund, more than 20 different nonprofit or governmental entities originated 10 or more successful grant applications. Since History Colorado’s staff is based in Denver, and since historic preservation has deep roots in the Denver community, it’s reasonable to expect that Denver organizations can tap this knowledge pool to their advantage.
For example, the Denver Women’s Press Club received $165,000 in grants to renovate its building, which was originally the home and studio of renowned western artist George Elbert Burr. A privately owned building, Denver’s Daniels & Fisher Tower received $500,000 in funding under the aegis of the D&F Tower Preservation Foundation.
The Denver Urban Renewal Authority has sponsored dozens of successful grants, while Historic Denver, a private historic preservation group, has achieved many more.
The city of Colorado Springs has sponsored more than 20 grants, but hasn’t been particularly aggressive in seeking grants. That may be because past City Council majorities have been either reluctant to provide matching funds or unwilling to abide by conditions attached to grants.
For example, when Council was led by then-Mayor Lionel Rivera, the city refused a grant to begin renovation of the seating in the City Auditorium because it was conditioned upon continuing city ownership of the facility.
At least one local grant recipient failed to comply with the intent and spirit of the program. After receiving more than $60,000 for Main Hall, the original Cragmor Sanitorium building, UCCS gutted it. The building was subsequently delisted from the National Register of Historic Places.
Some Springs successes
Yet some local recipients have aggressively pursued historic preservation funding — and greatly benefited from their efforts. From 1992 to 2014, Colorado College has received 21 grants for $1.765 million, or almost 20 percent of all the grants written in El Paso County. The college’s success may be attributed to its extraordinary array of eligible historic structures, but also to its sophisticated planning and grant-writing capabilities.
“We didn’t have a lot of funding back in the day to do restoration,” said Eckhardt, who has worked at the college since 1983. “We weren’t a rich school — we were a high tuition school.”
The college’s first grant of $50,000 funded a historic site survey and plan, which laid the groundwork for 20 subsequent grants. The college is the largest single recipient of SHF grants statewide, and has put more than $1.6 million of its own money into grant matches. CC also has funded other historic preservation projects without state funding, including extensive renovation to Cossitt Hall and to the interior of Cutler Hall.
As Eckhardt and the college gained experience, the process became easier.
“[The application] is difficult for someone who does one project,” Eckhardt said. “So when the First Congregational Church and Grace [Episcopal] Church were interested in applying, we were able to network and help them.”
Grace eventually received three grants totaling $210,000 while the First Congregational Church successfully applied for nine grants totaling more than $500,000.
Getting grants, like winning Best of Breed at a dog show, may be a function of having a purebred in the show. The 3,000 or so pre-1910 residential buildings on the Westside are predominantly small structures built for working-class families. The fact that these working-class neighborhoods have endured for more than a century is historically significant, but it’s doubtful that the State Historical Fund can assist in preserving them.
“It’s all communication,” said Colorado Springs architect Michael Collins, who has been involved in local historic preservation projects for decades. “Denver gets most of the dollars because they’re so well-networked. We’re just a small, peripheral community in comparison.”