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Trump budget would cut program to preserve Michigan auto history

vintage cars at Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum
F.D. Richards
Museums like the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, shown here, are part of the MotorCities National Heritage Area, a group that works to preserve Michigan's automotive history.

President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the federal funding for a group that works to preserve Michigan’s automotive history. The MotorCities National Heritage Area covers 16 counties and includes museums, parks and entertainment venues, including the Henry Ford Museum, the Michigan International Speedway and the Michigan Theatre in Jackson.

There are 49 national heritage areas that are designated by Congress and partner with the National Park Service. Federal funding makes up 97 percent of cash revenues in the annual budget for the MotorCities program and in 2015 totaled nearly $507,000. The heritage area gives away most of that funding in the form of grants to other auto history organizations. (The MotorCities' annual budget also includes in-kind donations. In 2015, those non-cash contributions totaled more than $740,000.)  

Shawn Pomaville-Size is the executive director of the MotorCities National Heritage area. She joined Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou on "Morning Edition."

Doug Tribou: First, tell us a bit more about the MotorCities National Heritage Area. What is it and what is its purpose?

Shawn Pomaville-Size: Our purpose is to link that whole area. It might be a "Find Your Roadtrip" guide, which takes people through that whole area and they can get a passport stamp, if you're familiar with the National Parks passport stamp program. And that's a part of heritage tourism and that's where we have an enormous economic impact. We did a study in 2013, it was a third-party independent study, and it concluded that MotorCities National Heritage Area generates over $410 million in economic impact and supports more than 4,500 jobs through heritage tourism.

DT: What are some of the other places? We mentioned the Henry Ford and Michigan International Speedway. What are some of the other places that you support?

SPS: Well, around Lansing we have the R.E. Olds [Transportation] Museum and the Detroit Historical Museum here in Detroit. Gilmore Car Museum as far west as Kalamazoo. All over the area of southeast, central, western Michigan. Gilmore Car Museum is out in Hickory Corners, so we consider it the western entrance to the heritage area.

DT: Keith Crain is the chairman of the Crain Communications Board and the editor-in-chief of Crain’s Detroit Business. He also sits on the board of trustees for the Gilmore Museum and the Automotive Hall of Fame, which are part of the heritage area. In an editorial published on Sunday, Crain wrote about the national heritage area saying, “It's time to realize that the national debt is more important. We'll have to hitch up our pants and raise these funds on our own without government help. We have to kick the narcotic habit of federal money.” How do you respond to that?

SPS: Well, the first thing that I would say to that is federal money is the taxpayers' money. We have, so to speak, raised those funds. So the question then becomes what’s the role of the taxpayers in preserving our culture? In our case for example, we’re telling a regional story. We’re telling something that’s really critical to our history and, you know, the type of tourism that this creates is an economic multiplier of the taxpayers’ investment.

DT: Shawn, automotive history is intertwined with Michigan’s history and I think most people would agree, in general, that preserving history is important. But I also think that there might be a case to be made that automotive history is pretty well preserved in the U.S. consciousness. There are a lot of films and books and museums that maybe don’t rely on a heritage area. How would you make your case to continue the federal dollars to support your mission?

SPS: Well, I think it’s unique to Michigan. It’s a story that can’t be told anywhere else, Doug, and so it’s about how we transformed manufacturing worldwide here. I think it’s important for the National Parks to be telling that story because part of what they do is preserve our culture and what we do in turn is make a huge difference in public awareness by partnering together all of these organizations to present the full story and make it accessible to a worldwide audience and something that’s not sitting idly by in a collection.

*Clarification: This post has been updated to also note the amount of non-cash revenues in the MotorCities annual budget. In 2015, the organization received more than $740,000 in in-kind donations.  

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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