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Turner P&C column: Members remain core to Preservation Society’s mission

preservation-admin , January 24, 2024


Read the original Post and Courier article online.

A few months into my previous role with the Preservation Society of Charleston, I received a call from a newer resident concerned about the impacts of overdevelopment. I was explaining that the modest cost of an annual membership to our organization would give her access to information about how to advocate for sustainable solutions. She stopped me mid-sentence. “Wait,” she said, “I thought you were a ‘society.’ You’re saying anyone can just join?”

Indeed. So, if there is any lingering cause for confusion by our name, let me take the opportunity to reinforce that the Preservation Society is open to all. Founded by a principled and fearless advocate, Susan Pringle Frost, today our professional staff takes seriously the legacy we have as the oldest community-based organization in the United States focusing on the protection of historic and cultural resources.

As it has been since 1920, membership is core to not only our identity as a grassroots organization, but also our governance model. We host membership meetings three times a year, including our annual meeting each fall where our board is elected by — and for — our members.

And once a year, we host a monthlong membership drive to build our network of advocates for this exceptional place we call home. This year, our drive begins Thursday, the day of our winter member meeting. Our featured speaker will be Sara C. Bronin, chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and one of the nation’s foremost experts in zoning law.

With the opportunity to join in-person or virtually, we aim to provide our more than 4,000 Preservation Society members added perspective on how the tools of zoning can be utilized to confront modern challenges, including climate resilience and affordability.

Since taking the helm as president and CEO almost two years ago, I have seen firsthand how the Preservation Society’s membership-based model is critical to our success. Consider our successful intervention last fall in a lawsuit threatening to upend the authority of Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review. In his ruling, S.C. Circuit Judge Roger Young found that we had standing to defend the city’s denial of a proposal for 295 Calhoun St., a bulky, out-of-scale building proposed for the Harleston Village neighborhood. He found our intervention warranted as a representative of our members, writing of the society, “Membership is core to its role as a grassroots organization as it engages the Charleston community in matters pertaining to its mission to preserve the City’s distinctive character, quality of life, and diverse neighborhoods.”

Being part of an associational organization like the society has a reciprocal advantage. The broader our base, the stronger our credibility. Through our member meetings, frequent communications and robust program of educational events, not only does our team educate and inspire our membership; we in turn are educated and inspired by the experience and enthusiasm of those members.

Perhaps even more importantly, we are accountable to our members in developing advocacy positions and educational initiatives, whether they concern community-supported oral histories or timely new resilience planning guidelines. Members are, after all, the reason the Preservation Society of Charleston exists.

As we work to address the needs of the 21st century, our team of professionals is committed to maintaining the bottom-up ethic that has always been fundamental to our work. Our organization is at its best when we empower others, validate community efforts and unearth narratives that may otherwise be lost. That is why we remain focused on building and engaging a broad, diverse and multigenerational corps of members.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the preservation movement is just about wistful nostalgia or a desire to freeze time. Ask around, and I hope you’ll see that we are, in fact, very much future-focused. At a time when short-term thinking threatens what is so special about this place we share, I hope you will find in us an effective advocate for livability and quality of life and sign up to be a member today.

Brian R. Turner is president and CEO of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

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