Foster care is welcome after years of abuse
History doesn’t live in the past. It may be from the past, but it’s entrusted to the present, with a moral and ethical obligation to preserve it for the future.
That’s why it’s so heartening to see Marion County finally end its long-term abusive relationship with the 1887 Bowron Building — and why it’s equally maddening that it has taken more than a decade to end the county’s lack of proper stewardship and turn the building over to people who want to do more than just watch it and its place in history crumble.
It was 11 full years ago that the county learned the building needed a new roof. Roofs don’t last forever. Part of owning any building — whether it’s your home or a historic landmark — involving regularly maintaining it.
But despite advice from an engineer at the time, the county refused to invest in the building. Instead, it loaded up its second floor with heavy files, further damaging the structure.
Then, four years later, it completely removed from its budget money already earmarked to maintain the structure, one of the county’s few remaining examples of utilitarian, prairie-style Victorian limestone architecture — the quaint yet stately style that once dominated our communities.
Built at the same time and by the same crew as the Elgin Hotel, the Bowron Building merits the same protection of being included in the National Register of Historic Places.
But the county, with no eye toward the future, let it further decay until finally pulling out all of the offices that had occupied the first floor and moving them to often overpriced rental locations no more convenient than the historic building had been.
The county owes both the building and posterity more than just allowing it to escape decades of abuse. It’s not as if it didn’t have money to do otherwise. The small, forgotten treasure allegedly misused by its former economic development director would have been more than enough to pay for a new roof.
Now the building is in the hands of the city and its economic development apparatus. With a much smaller tax base to draw from, it will be a significant challenge to properly maintain and restore the building to a level of use appropriate to its 131-year history.
But it is a vitally important task. Listen carefully to what outside developers have been saying during recent visits. It’s unlikely the community will ever find an industrial messiah for the local economy. If we are to have any hope of economic growth, the process undoubtedly will begin with transforming our economy into one that revolves around arts, crafts, and tourism dollars. And in that scenario, Main St. cannot afford to see any of its few remaining pieces of classic architecture rot away like decaying teeth falling from the mouth of an aging derelict.
Cottonwood Falls, Council Grove, and other nearby communities have done masterful jobs preserving their architectural history, both as a legacy to future generations and as a potent tool for commercial development.
In Marion County, commissioners turned a deaf ear to this not only because their continued neglect of the building increased the price for restoring it but because, in the words of the only commissioner who has served throughout that period, other communities in the county also have historic buildings, and why should Marion benefit from county money?
Preserving history isn’t about making sure every commissioner district gets an equal share. It’s about helping where help is needed, and preserving that which was damaged by lack of proper stewardship.
The parochial attitude of “what’s in it for my district” is what makes proposed expansion of the commission from three members to five so silly. An expanded commission would feature even more of the “us vs. them” attitude that has prevented the county from working together toward common betterment.
Older buildings, like older people, require a bit of tender loving care. It’s what we in the present owe to the past and the future. And it doesn’t matter whose district it’s in or whether there’s some competing short-term goal, like creating a glistening multimillion-dollar temporary home for the country’s garbage.
No one will even come to Marion County to marvel at the grandeur of its trash transfer station. We can only hope that the county’s gesture of finally giving up title to the Bowron Building wasn’t too little, too late.
— ERIC MEYER