By A. Robert Jaeger
In a few months, America will be learning for the first time about the economic value of its historic churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. This value – we are calling it the Economic Halo Effect of sacred places – captures the multiple ways by which sacred places contribute to the vitality and economic health of towns and neighborhoods. This Halo Effect has been captured by Partners for Sacred Places, America’s only national nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sustaining the community value of religious buildings, in a research project conducted with the University of Pennsylvania.
Here’s a quick preview: the Halo value for the average sacred place is enormous – in the millions of dollars – and it can be used to dramatically strengthen the argument that religious properties are an essential part of our streetscapes and our civic fabric.
The Halo Effect findings will be released early in 2014, but we can already predict how they will change the way we serve and assist our churches and synagogues. First, this understanding can help congregations and parishes raise capital funds from new sources. Second, Halo can be used to persuade public officials, philanthropies and business leaders to see themselves as stakeholders in the preservation of these buildings. And third, Halo will be a powerful tool to encourage and guide the way religious, community and philanthropic leaders invest in the most important and the most promising of our sacred places.
Sacred places are universal. They are present almost everywhere – evenly distributed in neighborhoods that may lack nutritional food, or a safe place for kids after school or the performing arts.
One significant element of Halo is the way congregations share their space with arts, social service, education and health organizations. As our towns and cities identify acute challenges with smaller budgets, especially in certain neighborhoods where people are underserved, Partners is seeing that sacred places are increasingly well-suited to function as incubators and homes for important nonprofit work. Why is this so?
- Sacred places are universal. They are present almost everywhere – evenly distributed in neighborhoods that may lack nutritional food, or a safe place for kids after school or the performing arts. And they often have good, high-visibility locations that are easy to reach via public transportation.
- Sacred places offer one-stop space shopping. Older churches often have a wide range of available space, including auditoriums, classrooms, institutional kitchens and a range of meeting spaces. There is likely to be a space to meet almost any need.
- Sacred places are flexible. Church spaces have been used for multiple purposes over decades or longer. The congregation’s parish hall, for example, may have housed theatre in the 1920s, civil rights meetings in the 1960s and after-school programs in the 1990s. Today, that same space might be appropriate for nutritional education or rehearsals.
- Sacred places have owners with shared values. Congregations are, very often, eager to share their space and serve the community in new ways. They see this as a part of their mission, and are willing to share at a low cost. (But of course they’d like some help to keep the roof repaired!)
- Sacred places come with “added benefits.” Parish or congregation members and volunteers can provide hands-on help, referrals, tutoring and other support to those who are served by programs housed in sacred places.
Now that we are coming to understand the larger value of sacred places to our communities, it is time for architects, artisans and others who care about sacred places to work together to preserve these buildings and maximize their usefulness for the arts, food and nutrition programs, and other community services. We need to do everything we can to encourage and support the Halo Effect of sacred places.
A. Robert Jaeger is president and co-founder of Partners for Sacred Places, America’s only national, nonprofit organization focused on caring for and making good use of older and historic religious properties. (www.sacredplaces.org) He has a Master of Arts in historic preservation planning from Cornell University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Michigan. Prior to that, he worked with the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation as senior vice president for its Historic Religious Properties Program. Mr. Jaeger also is the co-author of Sacred Places at Risk (1998) and Strategies for Stewardship and Active Use of Older and Historic Religious Properties (1996), author of Sacred Places in Transition (1994), and editor (1985-89) of Inspired, a bi-monthly magazine with news and technical articles on religious property preservation.