February 11, 2019
For many listeners, Illinois may only mean Chicago and the hustle and bustle of the second city – but Illinois is a massive state with a rich and stunning diversity of heritage. It’s a big job to advocate for and preserve that heritage and Landmarks Illinois, founded in 1971, is in a race against time to help the people of Illinois save places that matter. Landmarks Illinois’ President and CEO Bonnie McDonald is today’s guest – a leader in the field who is blending economic and real estate development with historic preservation in new and intriguing ways. It’s time to talk preservation prairie style on this episode of PreserveCast.
Bonnie McDonald joined Landmarks Illinois as its executive leader in 2012. Since her arrival, Landmarks Illinois has opened its first regional office, nearly doubled its staff, initiated a preservation revolving fund and new grant programs, passed needed policies and state legislation, all while engaging in on-the-ground advocacy helping people save places that matter to them. Previously, she served as executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Anoka County Historical Society, as well as working previously with Preservation Action in Washington, DC, the Preservation League of New York State, the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. Bonnie has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University.
For many listeners, Illinois may only mean Chicago and the hustle and bustle of the second city. But Illinois is a massive state with a rich and stunning diversity of heritage. It’s a big job to advocate for and preserve that heritage and Landmarks Illinois, founded in 1971, is in a race against time to help the people of Illinois save places that truly matter. Landmarks Illinois president and CEO Bonnie McDonald is today’s guest. A leader in the field who is blending economic and real estate development with historic preservation in new and intriguing ways. It’s time to talk preservation prairie-style on this episode of PreserveCast.
This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined from Chicago, Illinois with Bonnie McDonald, who joined Landmarks Illinois as its executive leader back in 2012. Since her arrival, Landmarks Illinois has opened its first regional office, nearly doubled its staff, initiated a preservation revolving fund and new grant programs, passed needed policies, new state legislation, all while engaging in on-the-ground advocacy helping people save places that matter to them. Previously, she served as the executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Innoka County Minnesota Historical Society, as well as working with the Preservation Action in Washington DC, the Preservation League of New York State, the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, and the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. She has a Bachelor’s in Arts in art history from the University of Minnesota and a Masters of Arts in historic preservation planning from Cornell University.
We are so pleased to be speaking with Bonnie McDonald today. How are you today, Bonnie?
Hello, Nick. Thanks for having me. When you read off all those job titles, one might think I can’t hold one down. But actually, they were mostly internship positions. I was very fortunate to work with all of those great mentors.
Okay, well that answers the first question, how have you had that many jobs in your only 30 years on this earth, so.
Well, a little bit older than that [laughter] but when I talk with graduate students, I often give them advice that the more internships that you can take the better because you can build your network very quickly. And I was lucky to have all those opportunities that you listed, but many of them were at the same time so I was working about four jobs while also going to school. It was a lot of work.
Yeah, that’s a lot. Now last week, Chicago, it was negative 50. Is it slightly warmer there today?
Yeah, actually it is about 50 degrees above 0, so we had a nice 100-degree temperature swing. We’re very happy here. It’s going to dip back down though into the 20s. But we’re all out here without coats right now.
Good. Well, I’m sure everyone will have the flu within a week with that kind of temperature swing [laughter]. I think we’ve had a 60-degree temperature swing in Baltimore, so nothing compared to what you’ve got. So people love to know about the background of sort of the leaders of preservation and how they got to where they are. So where were you raised? What’s your story? Were you always interested in preservation history? Did it come to you a little later in life? What’s the origin story here?
I was raised by history lovers, as were many preservationists, and I was really thankful that my parents had, I think, a passion for place and they took my brother and I to historic sites. Those were our vacations. We didn’t have a lot of money. And so we went to the Minnesota Historical Society’s historic sites. And it gave me a love for, I think, the stories that people had both pasts and really, present and future as well. So yes, if my accent doesn’t give me away, I grew up in Minnesota. And I spent most of my life there until I went off to college and was very, very fortunate to grow up in a place that has a rich history as well as one of the biggest historical societies in the entire country. So growing up as a kid, going to historic sites, I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and spent a lot of time in the library as well, so. I know this is making me sound like quite a rockstar, that I spent a lot of time in the library [laughter]. But it really did help to give me, I think, the understanding of what I was to do later in life. And my parents also had a deep commitment to civic engagement. They cared deeply about justice and giving people the equal opportunity to the resources that they needed to live their lives. And so when you put those things together, preservation was a natural. I started my career actually as an art student and then morphed into our history and finally found– the light bulb went off when I had my first architectural history and historic preservation class at the University of Minnesota. So it all came together. And I found a way to use my natural voice for justice and equality that I had been raised with and put that into my love of history.
Well, it’s a beautiful and compelling story. So, where does it lead you to? Now, you obviously had a lot of internships, but what’s the first paid job in the field?
Right. Well, my first paid job was as a intern. I was a paid intern. For all those executive directors listening, pay your interns. They need it. And so I started as an intern for the Preservation Alliance in Minnesota and under the directorship of George Edwards, who was an amazing mentor to me and actually gave me a job there for two years. And one of my first jobs was working on the State Historic Tax Credit Policy Initiative, which would continue with me for my entire career as I have found. So I started doing that in 1998 when I was still in college. And it really was absolutely the right position for me. I loved doing advocacy work. I loved working side-by-side with local citizens, working at the legislature, doing a little bit of lobbying, and research, policy analysis. It was fantastic. And I fell in love with preservation advocacy. And in fact, I hoped one day, I set it to be my goal that, if I could ever do it, I would become the executive director of the Preservation Alliance in Minnesota. So it was a dream come true when I got that job when I was about 30 years old.
And how long were you with the alliance in Minnesota?
Well, I was a intern there from ’98 to 2000 before going off to the Cornell University. And at the same time – I just want to say – I also tried different things, which I think is very important when you’re considering your preservation career. So as you heard, I mean, I worked for the Heritage Preservation Commission in Minneapolis, the State Historic Preservation Office, and in Minnesota, the Preservation League of New York State, which is the statewide nonprofit as well as our national lobbying group, Preservation Action, just to try many different things. Because in preservation, you can end up doing preservation advocacy, consulting work. You can work for a local state or the national governments or even do lobbying for a full [basis?]. So just want to put a plug in for trying many different things before you decide what you’re going to do. But of course, my heart led me to preservation advocacy work and I got my first executive director job right out of grad school at 26 helping a local historical society, but that was to actually gain my non-profit experience since I have never managed one. I just worked for one, and thankfully had a great experience there for about three and a half years and worked, then got the job at the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota from 2015– I was there from– pardon me– 2005 to 2012 before being recruited to Landmarks Illinois.
So tell us about Landmarks Illinois. It obviously has changed. Just in the introduction here, we heard about sort of the change in the organization since your arrival. But why don’t you paint a picture for, I guess, what it was and perhaps what it is today. Kind of give us the background, the history of the organization and where you guys are at today.
Yeah. Landmarks Illinois serves as a statewide historic presentation nonprofit advocacy organization and we serve a big state. So in land area, actually, Illinois is the 12th-largest state in the nation and so we have a very big job. But at the same time, we serve Chicago, which is the third-largest city in the nation. At the same time, it’s also serving the rest of this very large state. So it’s a very big job for my team and myself. So there are nine of us on our staff at Landmarks Illinois, but that’s not where we started. We started in 1971 as a grassroots organization. Very grassroots. All-volunteer. Our board was made up of actually lots of lawyers who care deeply about saving the Chicago Stock Exchange building, which was a Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler design from 1893 or 1892– pardon me– and we were not successful in saving that building, but it really launched the preservation movement in a big way in Chicago. We morphed into a statewide organization in 1979 when we realized that the rest of the state needed a coordinating voice, an umbrella organization serving our many cities across Illinois. And then, we continued to expand. So we opened our first regional office in Springfield, which was staffed by Frank Butterfield in 2013 and we continue to grow to add more capacity to help people save places.
So paint a picture of– what are some of your biggest programs that you guys run now? I know you have a grant program. You have a lot of advocacy programs. What’s the hot topics at Landmarks Illinois right now?
Sure. I think what sets us apart and what always impressed me about Landmarks Illinois even before coming here was the degree to which the organization gets deeply involved in solving problems preservation. So many of us know that you come to an advocacy issue and there may not be a use for a building or you have a recalcitrant local government and they insist that the building is structurally unsound. And for many, many years in our history, we have brought pro bono consultants to the table to do condition assessments. So we’ll bring pro bono assistants out. Our director of advocacy [inaudible] care about their– usually a dozen times a year looking at buildings all across the state with engineers and architects, and they’ll do these free assessments, which prove the building is– ta da– structurally sound. And then, we [hope?] to do adaptive reuse studies. We’ll bring together dozens of professionals to find the reuse solutions and we’ll put our money behind our mouth. We actually take money from our budget. We raise money to give it away. So I’m very thankful to our board of directors because we dedicate some of the money from our biggest fundraiser to a grant program or a presentation heritage fund grant and we give away between 40 and 60,000 dollars every year to smaller organizations that are [cells?] in feed grants to help their capacity and their growth and that program is managed by Suzanne Germann on our staff, our director of grants and easements. So continuing on, what are some other hot topics? As I said, I was always proud of the work that Landmarks did. Many might know us from our effort to save Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, which we came together with the National Trust to buy at auction from Christie’s, and we continue have an easement from that property. Our easement program is actually one of the largest in the nation. We have about 555 of them all across the state that we manage and that’s a big job as well–
That’s a lot.
–and yeah. Go ahead, Nick.
No. I was just going to say that’s a tremendous amount of easements. I mean, just for someone who’s listening who maybe isn’t familiar with easement programs, I mean, that’s got to be one of the tops in terms of nonprofits out there.
Absolutely. And that is, as I said, a big job for Suzanne. But she not only does that, but she runs our grants programs at the same time. So we just started. We just relaunched a revolving fund, which we have had for a number of years. Very successful fund that stopped in 2000 and we just relaunched that program to invest really in the developers who don’t have the same capacity to access the normal capital markets, and we’re excited to have this part of the 1772 Foundation to do that. We do this all at the same time of just taking of day-to-day calls from our advocates, property owners, local governments from across the state, and we factor in about– I think we serve about 5,000 calls and emails every year to help with support across the state. So big job and an incredible staff that does this.
So now I know you also do a lot of legislative advocacy. And obviously, you’ve opened up a field office in Springfield to do that. I’m curious. In a state, you described it– and I don’t know if I ever thought of it this way, but it’s the 12-largest state in terms of landmass. In a state that large– I mean, we have it really easy here in Maryland. Right? We can get from one end of the state– if we had to drive the entire state, we could do it in three hours. I don’t know why you would, but if you had to, you could do it. But three hours in Illinois and you’re probably still within the state depending on where you started. How do you engage people in legislative advocacy in a sate like that? Do you have any pointers or any tips for people in sort of similarly-situated large states? How do you get people engaged? Do they have to physically be there? What’s the story there?
Right, Nick. Well, you’re right. It takes us three hours just to get outside of Chicago, basically in traffic. So from one point to another in our state, it can take seven hours to get across the state driving. Now our western folks are laughing right now, our California [inaudible] nothing to them, but it’s still a daunting task when you’re trying to knit together the voices of people from all over points around the state. And the place where we really need to do that is at the state capital. And so by opening up the field office that we had– excuse me– in Springfield, we were actually able to serve a much broader constituency on the ground. So I just want to say how important that’s been, having both Lisa in our Chicago office and Frank in our Springfield office. They can better serve our constituency on the ground in the field. And that has built up more support as they’ve talked about the legislative needs that we have that improving the budget circumstances for our State Historic Preservation Office, which in recent years has lost about two-third of its staff. We also have been working on state incentives. So when we’re out in communities talking about vacant properties, we can ask them to be advocate for their state representative and state senator about our proposed now real estate Historic Tax Credit as well. So number one is just being in front of people to the extent that you can within your capacity. But I just want to say as well that we have a regional advisory network. And that has been a successful tool in leveraging local advocates who are leaders in their communities. And they can talk with people that they know in their networks as well.
So leverage is important when you have small capacity like many preservation organizations do. Use those high-level voices in your network to engage people in their communities. So the regional advisor network has been successful. And the final thing that I would say is we have a Historic Preservation Caucus in Illinois. We were the first state to organize a State Historic Preservation Caucus like we find at the federal level, as a congressional level. And that has helped us to get our issues directly in front of legislators who care about economic development, history, obviously, Historic Preservation culture. So they come together as a caucus and we can connect them with their local voices. So it’s really about having a network and a system to engage that network at the same time.
And then you mentioned a big legislative success you kind of buried it in there, but your State Historic Tax Credit, do you want to tell us real quick what happened there?
Yes, we are celebrating this year the initiation of our brand new, Illinois Historic Preservation Tax Credit. We have been working on getting a state-wide tax credit for nine years, and we were successful starting in 2009. We were part of an advocacy effort to start a pilot initiative for one city, Peoria, Illinois, actually. And it started with one building, so there was a tax credit for one specific building. Talk about a satisfied. And then it grew into a pilot program for just five cities known as our River Edge, River Edge Re-development Zones State Tax Credit, but there was only five cities and that put the pilot over five years demonstrated that this was the catalytic tool that we needed to revitalize the use of vacant parts of those cities. And so we successfully made the case and through, as, an intense amount of lobbying. In 2018, we’re finally successful in passing this legislation, All be little strips down from what we wanted it to be, but a success nonetheless. And so this is as of January 1st, 2019, this credit is now available.
So that’s a huge legislative success perhaps proof that the field office really does work if you didn’t have any others, which I know you do.
Yeah, absolutely. We look to our neighbor of Indiana. A few people know Indiana’s, one of the largest– if not the largest statewide Historic Preservation organizations in the country with eight or nine regional offices, But far fewer people than we have in Illinois, so we’re trying to catch up to our neighbors in Indiana. And they have shown as though the benefit of regional offices. And I think that you’re absolutely right, the State Tax Credit is indicative of the success of being in the field.
So now I know you guys are pretty forward-looking organization. And you’re pretty entrepreneurial so you’re also looking– and you’ve been brought in even by the National Trust to speak about the work that you’re doing with respect to the opportunity’s own program, so First and foremost, what is an Opportunity Zone and why should the preservation community care about it?
Yes, so Opportunity Zone is a brand new program, sometimes called the Opportunity Zones. You might also call it the– some called it O Zones. And the Opportunity Zones are basically districts that were carved out or identified, I should say, by your governor and your state based on the tax reform bill that happened in late 2017. So in 2018, the governors identified areas that, basically, were considered low income and/or in need of additional revitalization funds to help with, hopefully, adapt overused projects. But there can also be new constructions at the same time. Very briefly, there’s a rouse for donors for those who have large capital gains to invest in community and economic development projects. The parameters of that are very technical. And I certainly don’t want people to fall asleep in this podcast so I’m not going to go into that.
But why it can benefit the historic preservation community is that if you have a– if you have a project that you’ve been working on, located in an Opportunity Zone, it essentially will allow for a brand new investor pool that can come in. Where it falls short, though, is it’s not for projects that have truly languished, and that’s what many of our projects are that we’re working. And we’re working in preservation because, oftentimes, the solutions aren’t apparent right away. But if you have a project that has a reuse already identified and it’s just looking for that little boost, it makes a good project great. But it doesn’t make a bad project good, if we can say it that way.
Yeah, I think that that’s really helpful. And does Landmarks Illinois intend on setting up an O fund? Or how involved do you think you guys will be?
Right. Great question. In order for these funds through these investors to make it into a project, they have to happen through what’s called a Qualified Opportunity Fund. So there’s the project side and there’s the funding side. And so we considered starting a Qualified Opportunity Fund and went through an evaluation rubric that we put together based on, “Could we get this money out to market in the deadline that’s required by the legislation?” And that was my part of the webinar from the National Trust, which is actually available online from the National Trust if you would like to learn more about Opportunity Funds. And you can go through this rubric if your organization is considering it.
We, at this outset, decided to put off starting an Opportunity Fund right now because we don’t have a project that can come to market quickly enough, currently. However, it’s not a big hurdle to start one of these funds, and we may do so in the future when we have more projects that have ramped up, if we can say. But, as we say, we try to be entrepreneurial. And I think preservationists really have opportunities to take advantage of these programs as long as you can find the skillsets that you need to understand them. Find lawyers, accountants, and bankers who can help you identify if this is the right fit for your organization. And why not take advantage of these to help preservation happen?
So speaking of that entrepreneurial spirit, what’s next for Landmarks Illinois?
I would say that what we seek to do is to really identify that preservation is for people. And so you might not think of this as entrepreneurial in the financial sense, but I think, like Preservation Maryland and others who are, what I would say are leaders, we have a long way ahead of us can we say that, Nick?
We can say that.
Yeah. Years of opportunity to change the dynamic of our field. And what we hope to do at Landmark Illinois is really to demonstrate that the work we do is for people and it’s by people. So, for a long time, preservation was about edifices. We’re saving something for the architectural merit, but we do so because people use these buildings and they’re really the vessels in which we hold our memories and our culture. And so, the more that we can– I think the more that we can speak to individuals and communities about how these places relate to them civically, culturally, even psychologically and physiologically, how it improves overall health. The better off we are as we move forward in being relevant to the field. So, for us, we’re doing work in inclusion and equity because we’re very lucky, we have a very diverse population in our state, especially after the great migration, we have about– our population is about 13 to 15% African American. We have, of course, many Asian Americans. We have one of the biggest Chinatowns in the country in Chicago, for example, as well as our Latinx community and more. And everybody’s voice needs to be at the table in preservation to understand places that we’re trying to save and to ensure that we’re putting our resources where the community wants them. And so, we conducted a program with a wonderful consultant, Mina Dickerson, to do a value statement around this, understanding our work in inclusion and equity. We’re working with our Skyline Council, which are emerging leaders, networks to make sure we have voices from people of all ages at the table as well. I think this is perhaps our most important work right now, is thinking about the next 25 years of preservation and the structure of Landmarks Illinois, so that we can ensure we’re relevant.
Yeah. Something big. That’s just a little thing. Just trying to change the nature of the way that preservation works. So, just little stuff going on. Just digging around the edges out there.
Around the edges. Exactly. And we come from Illinois, we come from the heritage of Daniel Burnham and the thing, ‘Make no little plans.’ They do not boil Ben’s blood, something to that effect. They do not move people if we don’t make big plans. So, it’s in our blood.
Well, speaking of big plans, you’re also part of another big thing, which is you’re chairing the National Preservation Partners Network. And I wouldn’t be doing my job as the vice-chair if I didn’t ask you to give us a plug for that.
Yes. Thank you, Mr. Vice-Chair. So, I was proud to– an honor to be elected by the members of this network to be the chair in November of 2018. The partners network is a new nonprofit organization that is actually a generative network of preservation organizations, as well as partners who may not have preservation as their primary motive, but they’re really a friend of preservation. So, we’re thinking about, how do we grow the capacity within the organized preservation movement organizations like ours, as well as moving into networks that are involved in preservation, housing groups, looking at community development and open space, for example? So, we have bold plans for the partners network, and we hope that if you’re listening to this podcast, you will consider looking up information about us and becoming a friend of our organization.
Fantastic. And we’ve got a regional meeting coming up in Dallas, Fort Worth and Mesquite in the spring. That would be fantastic for anyone who fits what you just described there and want to learn more and get to meet the people who are out there like Bonnie and others doing the real work of preservation.
Can I just add, the other plug, Nick, if I say is–
–I love this network so much, that’s why I took on becoming the chair. I’m so pleased to work with my colleagues because every one of our colleagues are working on projects and programs like the ones you’ve covered on preserved cast in such a wonderful way. Like the projects I’ve talked about today, they’re doing this incredible work, and with usually, fairly small staff, fairly small budgets, but they have big goals, big dreams, and making a difference in their communities. And they’re just great people to know. And coming together with them is rejuvenating when you hear the successes that are happening out there. So, if you’re there in your community and you sometimes feel sort of alone, it’s a wonderful way to come back energized for the work of preservation.
Well put. So, most difficult question before we let you go on your way in your three-hour trip through the city of Chicago, your favorite historic site or place. The question that could get you into the most danger.
That’s absolutely true. I am unapologetic about the place that I call my favorite. And I’ve even said it here in Illinois, which is sort of sacrilege, but I would say my favorite place is the Minnesota State Capitol. And it was designed by Cass Gilbert, who was actually born in Ohio, became a Minnesota St. Paul architect, and then moved on to even greater things like the Woolworth building in New York City. But the reason it’s my favorite is it has a tremendously interesting story. I was a tour guide there, one of my many jobs during my college years. And I just saw the way that people marveled at its interior, which has over 32 different kinds of marble from all across the country and the world. And that sense of wonder not only translated from the architecture but from the work that was done in that building. And it’s really the people’s house. And that always made it beloved to me because it was a place that we all owned. It was designed to be inspirational and beautiful, and it was also a place where people came together to ensure that civic good was done. So, it’s not just about the architecture, but it’s about what happens in the building as well.
Well, I think that’s a fantastic and extremely diplomatic and dare I say, legislative answer and we greatly appreciate it. And this has been a fantastic conversation. So good to hear about all the good work that you’re doing out there. I know everyone looks to you and to Landmarks Illinois as a real leader in the preservation movement. And thanks for all the good work that you’re doing. Hope to talk to you again soon.
Well, it’s a mutual fan club, I would say, Nick. So, thank you for doing this podcast for everybody listening. And we’re all people saving places. So, thanks for your time today.
[music] Thanks for listening to PreserveCast. To dig deeper into this episode show, notes, and all previous episodes, visit preservecast.org. You can also find us online at Facebook and Twitter at PreserveCast. This program was supported by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. PreserveCast is produced by Preservation Maryland in Baltimore city. Thanks again for your support and remember to keep preserving.