Next week, Historic Wilmington Foundation will experience a changing of the guard. After leading the organization for 13 years, executive director George Edwards will pass the baton – a vintage one, no doubt – to Beth Rutledge.
A nationwide search for Edwards’ replacement attracted several strong candidates from all over the country, according to foundation officials. Rutledge, a recent transplant to Wilmington who joined HWF even before moving here nearly two years ago, got the nod.
“I was known to them. I had been on the board since January 2017 and had started volunteering at Legacy Architectural Salvage almost immediately,” she said. “I think that … we all had the opportunity to get to know each other. I had the opportunity as a board member to chair [the foundation’s] History’s Future Committee and helped put together a couple of events.”
It was Wilmington’s reputation for caring about its historic community that drew Rutledge and her husband to the city from their longtime home in Minneapolis.
“My husband got a job here. We were looking for a place with historic homes, a place that was closer to the ocean; we wanted to get away from the Minnesota winters,” she said. “I started looking at preservation websites, looking for real estate. I found a $55,000 downtown foreclosure [in Wilmington].”
Rutledge hopped a plane to check out the property, but it had been snatched up by the time she arrived. She was, however, struck by the fact that Wilmington has eight historic districts.
“That is unheard of in a city this size,” she said. “This is absolutely where we wanted to live.”
Rutledge knows historic preservation.
After spending 20 years in marketing and publishing in Minneapolis, she went to work in program development at the nonprofit Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, launching its education program and Old Home Certified, a regional Realtor designation. She also earned a real estate license, and through that process learned a great deal about old homes – knowledge she says can be applied anywhere.
“I’ve been a neighborhood preservationist as long as I can remember. I was always interested in how communities approached treasuring or not treasuring their historic resources,” she said. “Minneapolis has a terrible track record. They tear everything down and later say, ‘Oh, that was valuable.’ They don’t seem to get it. It’s sad.
“By being active in your neighborhood you can learn a lot. It’s a different experience than working for a historic preservation nonprofit, which is what I did. [Neighborhood involvement] was valuable in firing my commitment, showing me how important [historic preservation] really is. These resources are not just valuable, they are invaluable. When they are gone, they’re gone.”
But when old buildings are given new life, they can add both aesthetic and economic vitality to their community, she said, pointing to one example in downtown Wilmington.
“The Roudabush building was home to a seed company, and there is no need to have a seed company in downtown Wilmington these days,” Rutledge said. “But now it houses three thriving eating establishments. That’s its highest and best use today.”
Rutledge is concerned about the proposed elimination of federal historic tax credits.
“There has already been some shuffling around [in North Carolina], but what we’re talking about is at the federal level,” Rutledge said. “The bill is called the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act [an overhaul of the country’s tax code].”
As of press time, federal lawmakers had not yet passed the tax reform bill. The Senate version only slightly modifies the historic tax credit while the House version repeals it.
“That’s the biggest challenge at this moment: the threat of historic tax credits going away,” Rutledge said. “In North Carolina, there have more than 3,000 rehabilitation projects since 1976, and those have put roughly $2 billion back into the state economy. In Wilmington, roughly $39 million has been invested into income-producing buildings using historic tax credits.
“Research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation shows that federal historic tax credit projects increase surrounding property tax values, attract new businesses, draw in new neighbors and strengthen the surrounding tax base.”
Rutledge cited another number: Nationally, since 1976, historic tax credits have generated about $132 billion in private investment.
“Look at all the money that goes right back into the community and state,” she said. “A huge part of historic preservation is that it’s an economic driver as well as an environmental driver. This doesn’t just affect people who like old houses.”
Rutledge and her husband do, however, like old houses. Every house they have ever bought has been old and in need of rehab, and their Wilmington home is no exception. Using a general contractor who specializes in the renovation of historic structures, they are gradually converting the duplex where they live with their two rescue dogs into its original form: a single-family home.
“We absolutely love living downtown. We’re members of ROW [Residents of Old Wilmington],” she said. Rutledge is looking forward to her newest task, which is leading a 51-year-old organization into the future of cherishing the past.
“George [Edwards] is leaving this organization in absolutely impeccable shape in terms of respect, relationships and financial solvency. He is leaving the Historic Wilmington Foundation very healthy,” she said. “I think [HWF] saw that I am a doer and a thinker and somebody who enjoys collaboration.
“Community engagement is really important. There is a need for us to keep connecting, keep promoting.”