LOWER TOWNSHIP — Joe Salvatore knew it would take millions of dollars when he decided to restore one of the largest wooden post-and-beam airplane hangars left in America.
The 92,000-square-foot World War II hangar at Naval Air Station Wildwood was in a serious state of disrepair. It needed a new roof. Doors and windows were broken. Pigeons had soiled most of the historic building, where young men learned how to fly dive bombers — 42 of them losing their lives in the process.
That was 15 years and $3.2 million ago. The hangar is now a showpiece full of vintage military aircraft that draws thousands of visitors a year. It is host to a mixture of history-based and community events including airshows, historic lectures, swing dances, high school proms, big-band concerts, veterans ceremonies, residents fleeing coastal storms and even town hall meetings held by Gov. Chris Christie.
“The bulk of the money came from federal and state grants. It would be near impossible to get it from the private sector,” Salvatore said.
Work is under way with $500,000 in grant money from the state Department of Community Affairs and the New Jersey Historic Trust. An elevator is being installed and damages caused by a February 2010 blizzard and last year’s Hurricane Irene are being repaired.
Salvatore isn’t done yet, but if something doesn’t happen soon, he may have to find a new source of funding to finish the restoration. The state is about out of money for historic preservation. It is typically approved in public referendum bond issues along with money for open-space acquisition and farmland preservation.
The last such bond issue, $400 million approved in 2009 including $12 million for historic preservation, is almost gone, and there are no plans for a new one. Such bond issues take an act of the Legislature, a signature by the governor and an affirmative public vote. In a recession, it is not a high priority in Trenton.
“There’s $1.2 million left. These will be the last grants we have,” said Executive Director Dorothy Guzzo of New Jersey Historic Trust, which administers the grants.
To put that into perspective, Guzzo said a recent survey of potential preservation projects showed at least $730 million is needed. The Capital Needs Survey was last done in 1990, when $400 million in projects were identified. Guzzo said many done after 1990 were not even on that list.
The money mostly goes for capital projects for buildings on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Historic buildings not on the register can still get funding for planning purposes but not bricks-and-mortar projects.
With money running out, the priority is to work on things such as roofs or windows.
Tom Carroll, chairman of the New Jersey State Cultural Trust, which gives out grants for history and the arts, said he had seen grant funding decline dramatically since 2008 as the economy tanked. Carroll said he would not “hold my breath” for another bond issue until the economy improves.
Guzzo said studies show that money going to historic preservation stimulates jobs, even more than new construction, as restorations are labor-intensive and much of the work takes highly skilled craftsmen.
But Carroll said he had seen grant money for historic preservation and the arts decline from $12 million a year to about $400,000. There is more scrutiny to make sure a project will save a structure or at least create some revenue. Matching funds are usually required, and they are harder to secure.
“A lot of grant applications are for stabilization rather than restoration. You keep the water from pouring in, repair broken windows and keep animals out. How long will it go on? You better be ready to hold tight for another two years,” Carroll said.
Organizations need to cut costs and find other sources of revenue, Carroll said. He also is a vice president with the Cape May-based Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, which enjoys revenue from trolley tours, admission to the Cape May Lighthouse and to a World War II artillery tower, and other moneymakers. Organizations like this may be hurting, but they will survive.
Another problem is that some grants have limits based on the operating budget an organization has. Those budgets are down in a recession as gate revenue, private contributions and other sources of income decline.
This has reduced the amount Historic Cold Spring Village Director Anne Salvatore, Joe Salvatore’s wife, can apply for. She noted one bank, always good for a $6,000-a-year contribution, recently reduced the contribution to $1,000.
There are groups pushing for funding. The New Jersey Keep It Green Campaign is a coalition of 165 organizations working for a stable source of funding for open space, historic preservation, parks, farmland preservation, hunting and fishing opportunities and other such goals.
“The Historic Trust is running dry of their funds sooner than Green Acres and farmland preservation. As of next year, all the programs will be depleted,” Keep It Green Chairman Tom Gilbert said.
Voters have approved 13 bond issues since 1961 totaling $2.5 billion. The most stable revenue came in 1998, when voters created the Garden State Preservation Trust, which used bond money and revenue from sales taxes to provide $98 million annually for 10 years.
There are other sources of money. Some come from state agencies, such as the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, or from private foundations. There is even a state license plate that provides money. Most, however, is from the bond issues, and there isn’t one on the horizon.
It may arrive too late for some historic sites. The group Preservation New Jersey puts out lists of the most endangered sites, and the Howell House on Lafayette Street in Cape May is in the Top 10.
“Even the condemned sign weathered away,” said Hugh McCauley, a preservation architect with Preservation New Jersey.
The city declared it an unsafe structure in 2008 as a front porch is in danger of collapsing.
Even if money starts flowing again, Guzzo notes, the job never really ends.
“The work begins after you avoid the wrecking ball. Buildings always need maintenance,” Guzzo said.
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