PRESERVATION IN NJ: SUPPORTING OUR STATE’S HERITAGE & COMMUNITIES May 04, 2023
May is National Historic Preservation Month, and New Jersey has a long history of significant efforts to ensure that the state’s heritage is preserved for generations to come. In fact, the state was at the forefront of preservation with major decisions and acquisitions being made as early as the nineteenth century. More formally, however, New Jersey’s progress in historic preservation can be observed through legislation, incentive programs, and community-focused efforts. New Jersey is committed to making preservation more accessible to all populations across the state and beyond its borders.
New Jersey owes its preservation practices to the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) formalized historic preservation practices in the United States by clearly defining processes for preservation as well as creating institutions to oversee the practice within the United States. The NHPA also made states responsible for overseeing preservation within its borders. As a result, New Jersey passed the New Jersey Register of Historic Places Act (1970), creating a State Register to mirror the National Register and adopting the same criteria for eligibility. In addition, New Jersey’s preservation act established a regulatory process to protect historic sites from State, County and/or Municipal actions that could encroach upon those sites listed in the state historic register. According to Dorothy Guzzo, Executive Director of the New Jersey Historic Trust, “Very few states at the time, had passed similar measures.” Establishing this encroachment provision adds a layer of regulatory review for our state’s historic resources.
While enabling legislation encouraged preservation in the state, funding opportunities and incentives have made preservation more accessible and attainable. In 1987, historic preservation was included in a bond referendum that had previously only been designated for the purchase and preservation of open space in the state. The legislation is known as the New Jersey Green Acres, Cultural Centers and Historic Preservation Bond Act (1987). The legislation enabled the New Jersey Historic Trust (1967) to offer competitive grants and loans for select historic preservation projects. The NJ Historic Trust awarded the first historic preservation grants in 1990. Throughout the 1990’s, three more bond referendums to promote state historic preservation efforts emerged to include funding for additional historic preservation projects.
As momentum grew behind New Jersey’s preservation efforts, a temporary stable funding program was initiated. Additional bond referendums were created to stop gap funding while a permanent funding source for state-sponsored historic preservation programs could be identified. In 2014, a referendum on the ballot asked voters if they would support a portion of the corporate business tax to be dedicated to preserving open space, farmland, and historic preservation. This question was overwhelmingly approved by the voters and established the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund program we know today. According to Guzzo, “For the foreseeable future, this initiative provides more than $10 million a year in matching grants to support historic site preservation and heritage tourism. To date, the [NJ Historic] Trust has awarded over $201 million, leveraging as much or more in non-state matching funds. This program is one of the oldest, continuously funded, and robust programs of its kind in the nation.”
In addition to the NJ Historic Trust’s grant program, New Jersey enacted a state tax credit for historic rehabilitation (Historic Property Reinvestment Act 2021) in 2021. While New Jersey’s program is in its infancy, the state tax credit was designed as an incentive program intended to encourage New Jersey job growth, property development and redevelopment, community partnerships, and numerous other economic development initiatives. The state tax credit can be combined with the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (HTC) Program passed in 1977 to encourage and bolster long-term private investments focused on the rehabilitation of existing identified historic structures throughout New Jersey. The state credit was a key tool that had been missing from New Jersey’s toolbox, and with its enactment, New Jersey became one of 39 states in creating a statewide credit. “Before its passage,” Guzzo attests, “New Jersey was at a definite disadvantage and unable to attract the type of redevelopers who understand the unique challenges and opportunities of returning an obsolete building into a community asset.” The New Jersey historic tax credit can, as a result, create a center for arts, culture, and entertainment that can have a wider impact on the local community.
Preservation, the Community, and Heritage Tourism
Preserving historic buildings is, in fact, valuable for both the community and the economy. Guzzo states, “Historic buildings are often catalysts for community revitalization and provide incubator space for the creation of entrepreneurial businesses.” For example, the borough of Metuchen—established in 1900—was recently named one of the 2023 Great American Main Street winners for its excellence in community transformation. Metuchen used state, county, and private funding to help local businesses restore existing storefronts, create new signage, improve lighting, and establish inclusive events. Building vacancy rates along Main Street have even plummeted from 20% down to the low single digits. According to the community website, Metuchen’s Main Street now boasts an assortment of businesses such as traditional ice cream shops and home goods stores with items sourced from the UK. The Metuchen Main Street redevelopment project has allowed Metuchen to begin its transformation to a “growing regional destination.”
Diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within historic areas, such as Metuchen, can encourage heritage tourism. Heritage tourism is defined as traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past. It includes historic, cultural, and natural resources. Examples of heritage tourism include traveling to the Spring Encampment at Morristown National Historical Park then visiting downtown Morristown for dining and shopping opportunities; or attending the Cape May Music Festival, staying in a local inn, and finding unique dining and shopping opportunities within the Cape May Historic District. Heritage tourists not only spend money to attend some events, but they also spend money off-site as well, whether it be souvenirs, dinning, or lodging. A 2019 economic impact study found that heritage tourists spent $140.4 million on site and another $3.5 billion off-site. Such spending activities generated $358 billion in total state and local tax revenues and approximately 50,000 jobs. Visiting historic sites contributes 7% of New Jersey’s overall tourism revenue. Heritage tourism is an integral part of local economies and New Jersey’s economy overall.
Because tourism is such a key part of economic development, the state offers a variety of incentives for sites to become more visitor friendly. The NJ Historic Trust offers Heritage Tourism Grants to those sites listed or eligible for listing in the State and/or National Register of Historic Places. Interpretive signage, marketing plans, and trainings are a few of the activities covered by this grant. The Discover NJ History License Plate Fund is an additional resource for those sites seeking to become visitor ready. The Discover NJ History License Plate grant may be used to promote interpretation; marketing links among heritage sites; to assess visitor-readiness of a heritage site or sites; to establish performance evaluation systems; and to provide training initiatives, workshops, and educational activities that foster the goals and objectives of the New Jersey Heritage Tourism Plan. By allocating funds for visitor readiness, New Jersey is helping to support historic sites and their local economy.
Organizations such as Journey Through Jersey (JTJ)—a partner of the NJ Historic Trust—offer free advertising for eligible historic resources within the state. In addition to being placed on the website alongside a collection of other exceptional historic and cultural sites, approved sites may also be featured on JTJ’s social media pages, in blog posts, on NJ.com, and in themed travel itineraries. The New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism also features numerous cultural sites within the state and connects potential tourists with dining and hotel opportunities in the area. Affordable and accessible opportunities to encourage heritage tourism are available for New Jersey’s historic sites to continue promotion and increase visitation.
Looking Forward – NJ 2026 and Beyond
With the coming of the semi-quincentennial anniversary of the Revolutionary War, and the energy as well as resources being expended in getting ready for 2026, it is the hope that this anniversary will create a lasting impact on our state’s consciousness. Efforts have been and are being made throughout the state to encourage the growth of historic preservation especially with this monumental anniversary quickly approaching. For example, Guzzo notes, “The [NJ Historic] Trust has repositioned a part of its grant program to help sites become visitor ready and promote linkages between sites of historic, cultural, and natural interest. Perhaps most important though is that the public rely on these sites for basic understanding of our nation’s history. For school groups and adults alike, historic sites are the tangible evidence of history.” The NJ Historic Trust has even adopted a 250th Anniversary special initiative to help those sites with 2026 on their mind fund their vision. In addition, the New Jersey Historical Commission has partnered with the Crossroads of the American Revolution to create comprehensive guides and resources for professional development, interpretation, and visitor tracking. New Jersey’s historic organizations are expanding their resources to help the state celebrate its pivotal role in the birth of our country.
Because of New Jersey’s progress towards supporting historic preservation through legislation, incentives, and grant programs, our communities can prosper; we can become good stewards to our heritage, and we can encourage others to appreciate our state’s unique resources. New Jersey’s preservation support continues to grow as people become more aware of the importance of protecting our resources for more than just economic purposes, but also their cultural significance. Preservation starts with one person recognizing the significance of a place, then inspiring others to do the same. What places do you find significant?
For further reading and additional resources, please see the links below: