Debate continues over taxpayer funds for historic sites, memorials

(The Center Square) — An Atlanta suburb is spending $125,000 to erect a monument to a local civil rights icon, the latest in an ongoing public discussion about who deserves a memorial and whether tax dollars should pay for such monuments.

memorial honoring Fanny Williams comes after officials in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna razed a historic cabin named after Williams.

The building was once part of a racially insensitive restaurant that opened in 1941 and closed in 1992. The city purchased the building, relocated it and preserved it — using it for city events, such as meet and greets with Santa Claus — for three decades before destroying it in August 2022 amid concerns it perpetuated racial stereotypes.

A Smyrna official told The Center Square the city spent roughly $50,000 to maintain the historic edifice between 1997 and 2021. The city used public employees to raze the structure and said dismantling the building did not cost taxpayers.

The action raises a question about using taxpayer money to fund museums, monuments and other historic preservation initiatives, particularly as the country appears headed toward a recession and amid expanding budgets at the local, state and federal levels.

“This is just a core belief — sharing the history of any city or town is important,” Smyrna City Councilman Tim Gould told The Center Square. “The previous city councils have supported the funding of the history center, and telling Smyrna’s history has proven to be important to residents. From that perspective, that’s somewhat of a justification for using tax dollars; our residents say it’s important to them, number one.

“Number two, I think as we grow as a really more diverse community, making sure that stories that are not known by many people are told, and telling the story of Fanny Williams is one of them,” Gould added. “It’s part of our heritage; it’s part of our history, and it’s important to tell now. Why tax dollars versus [privately] funded? Yeah, that’s debatable, but in my mind, this is a worthwhile use of tax dollars.”

Public art serves multiple purposes, said Bettina Byrd-Giles, an Ensley, Alabama, civic leader who helped revitalize the Birmingham-area town. She said public art, including monuments, statues and memorials, “can build community and create a sense of belonging,” but only if “a governmental entity properly involves stakeholders in all facets of the planning and design process.”

“Public art enhances economic development by attracting tourists,” Byrd-Giles told The Center Square in an email. “Leveraging dollars from the federal government and private entities for a multipurpose project, not just the art itself can be fruitful for all parties involved. Public art should not be sacrificed in place of roads.”

Scott Curran, founder and CEO of Beyond Advisers in Chicago, said whether it is the role of government to serve as the keeper of history is a topic that “elicits varying perspectives.”

“Ultimately, the decision on whether governments should prioritize funding for historic preservation, monuments, and history is subjective and depends on the specific circumstances and priorities of each jurisdiction,” Curran told The Center Square via email. “Balancing the preservation of history with addressing pressing community needs is a complex task that requires careful consideration and public input.”

But not everyone agrees it is the government’s role to preserve history — particularly when it requires taxpayer money.

“Government exists to serve the people,” Scott Lieberman, the founder of TouchdownMoney.com, told The Center Square via email. “The exact roles of government are laid out right in the preamble of our Constitution. …Nowhere in there does it say to fund museums or entertainment venues or anything else. I believe it’s quite a stretch to argue ‘promoting the general welfare’ includes funding historical sites.

“There are many ways to fund projects besides tax dollars taken from everyday people. Corporate contributions for publicity, billionaires who desire a legacy, charities, and monetary donations from groups of citizens are all ways to fund projects,” Lieberman added. “Government needs to have a laser focus on improving the quality of life for everyday people. Inflation, crime, low wages, and lack of affordable housing are all pressing issues that governments on every level need to help solve first.”

By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor

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