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Another Voice: Reuse of historic properties can be an economic engine

By Christopher G. Kennedy

I support the historic preservation of the Chautauqua Amphitheater.

I am sure the Chautauqua Institution, which wants to replace the open-air theater with a modern replica, faces a challenging set of circumstances and a difficult set of choices.

I hope to encourage them to proceed along the path of preservation. It’s not always easy, but I can tell you it is rewarding.

I know first-hand the benefits of adaptive reuse and the role that historic buildings can play in community building and economic development.

For 25 years, I worked at Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., which I headed as president for the last 10 or so years I was there. In Chicago, we preserved the 4.5-million-square-foot Merchandise Mart, which today has one of the most enviable set of tenants in the city.

It continues to be an economic engine for the entire region and is the center of technology and design in our state.

We had similar success in North Carolina, preserving the historic Thomlinson manufacturing facility and reusing it as a design center and tradeshow facility. This helped solidify North Carolina’s leadership role in furniture manufacturing, design and marketing. Again, the historic building played a critically important role in the economic revitalization of the Piedmont region.

In Washington, D.C., we took an 80-year-old refrigerated warehouse and converted it into an economic engine for the city, saving hundreds of jobs downtown and luring to the city’s core important visitors who helped support the renaissance of our nation’s capital.

In each case, it would have been easier on management to simply build new facilities, but it was ultimately better for our company and more importantly the region to reuse existing facilities.

Our country faces increasing homogeneity in terms of the cultural experience that visitors to our cities are subjected to. Preserving unique historic facilities provides visitors and residents alike with a unique, defining experience that ultimately translates into a competitive advantage to attracting tourists and retaining residents.

If the amphitheater is preserved, I know that my own children one day will look forward to the opportunity to visit it to see where their grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, spoke when he traveled the state as the United States senator from New York.

Christopher G. Kennedy is chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, Inc., and former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. From 2000 to 2012, he was president of Merchandise Mart Properties, a commercial property management firm based in Chicago.