At last, after years of neglect and underfunding, bipartisan congressional action to create a reliable, dedicated funding source to “fix our parks” is gaining momentum on both ends of Capitol Hill. Specifically, support is building on both sides of the aisle for legislation that would pay $6.5 billion over five years to help address the $11.6 billion deferred maintenance deficit affecting our national parks.

This funding is both badly needed and long overdue. But, given the magnitude of the fiscal hole our national parks are facing, direct federal investment and annual appropriations is just one piece of the puzzle. Even with this more robust federal funding, the National Park Service (NPS) does not currently have the resources to fully improve and maintain the thousands of historic buildings in their care.

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But there is a key tool available that can help remedy the shortfall: the leasing of historic buildings. In short, the Park Service has the legal authority to enter into leases and cooperative partnerships with non-federal partners, allowing them to leverage private financial resources to maintain public places and alleviating the fiscal burden in a cash-strapped environment. This arrangement also enable lessees to tap the federal historic tax credit (HTC), one of our most powerful incentives for historic and community investment, to rehabilitate vacant and often dilapidated park buildings to fit a new use.

Take Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, for example. There, federal historic tax credits enabled through leasing helped convert long-vacant bathhouses into a family day spa that remains very popular with visitors a decade after its opening. As part of the 55-year lease, the NPS is no longer responsible for monthly utility bills or maintenance costs and 2 percent of the Quapaw Bath and Spa’s annual gross revenue must be put into a restricted fund for maintenance work. The private spa handles the daily maintenance operations of the building, while the park remains an active partner by ensuring that any repair work retains the historic integrity of the building.

Another nearby bathhouse has been converted into a brewery using a similar leasing arrangement. These conversions have fueled the ongoing appeal of Hot Springs National Park, which brought more than $99 million in tourist dollars to the local economy in 2016. 

The Bay Area in California is another hotbed for creative uses of formerly vacant or underutilized park property. A historic lease there led to a 100-year-old former warehouse for the Del Monte Cannery—once the world’s largest fruit and vegetable factory—becoming a boutique hotel in San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park. Within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fort Baker and Fort Mason have also seen new life courtesy of historic leasing. Fort Baker, a U.S. Army post dating back to 1905, is now a destination-worthy hotel and retreat center that offers distinctive accommodations, cooking classes, a luxury spa and event spaces within 29 historic buildings, while Fort Mason is now a lively arts and cultural hub that is home to five theaters, two art schools, an art supply shop, restaurants, café and other retail.

These examples of historic leasing and many others have meant the difference between preservation and reuse, and deterioration and neglect, of irreplaceable historic resources. They create a win-win scenario for our parks: otherwise inaccessible historic properties are made available to the public and National Park Service resources are freed up to address other structures in need. These leasing arrangements are replicable across the country—and are good business. Research on historic tax credits have shown that adaptive reuse projects have proven to be catalytic time and time again, making the reuse of historic structures financially feasible while bringing new jobs and economic activity to historic downtowns, urban centers, and small towns across the country. 

To be sure, applying public-private leases may not be appropriate across the entire National Park Service system. Icons like the Statue of Liberty or Independence Hall do not lend themselves to commercial uses in the same way that the examples described above do. That said, leasing of historic buildings in national parks is a proven yet underutilized strategy to bring irreplaceable links to our heritage back to life. 

And yet, at present several regulatory and policy barriers are impeding full use of this preservation tool. Among them are unduly restrictive policy interpretations and statutory and regulatory hurdles, as well as staff capacity and expertise issues within the National Park Service. In the case of Hot Springs, the proprietor worked with the regional NPS office in Omaha for years to build a case for the conversion. In fact, the Department of the Interior initially opposed the owner’s proposal to install a new window enabling customers to view the thermal pools from the lobby, out of concern it would destroy the building's character. The Hot Springs National Park superintendent advocated for the change, urging thoughtful modernization as an essential antidote to lingering vacancy. The results speak for themselves: all but one of the eight rehabbed historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row are now actively exploring leasing agreements. 

To take full advantage of these opportunities, the National Park Service must expand its internal personnel with the development capacity to identify opportunities for historic leasing and to steward those opportunities to fruition. While that capacity exists in a few parks today, existing NPS policy and culture often precludes experts in one region from assisting park officials in others or even sharing their expertise without an explicit request to do so. In addition, NPS should set aside funds that could directly cover the costs of preparing buildings for lease, including costs associated with building surveys, appraisals, and in some cases, stabilizing and completing basic improvements. 

The Park System’s maintenance needs are large and growing. And while the bipartisan bill in Congress represents a tremendous step forward, the responsible expansion of historic leasing by NPS presents an important opportunity to adopt a more flexible and innovative approach to conserving historic resources, and can ensure our historic parks will continue to thrive for the use and enjoyment of current and future generations.

Tom Cassidy is Vice President of Government Relations and Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.