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Historic conference a boon to downtowns

Without a splashy Marriott, airport shuttle service or glass-and-steel convention center, Nevada County is not the first destination for most major conferences.

But with the four-day California Preservation Foundation conference – expected to draw 500 people to Grass Valley and Nevada City May 12-15 – that may be changing.

A haven for architects, city leaders and property owners, CPF is a statewide, 1,500-member nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic buildings and landmarks. The convention’s glossy tri-fold brochure boasts workshops on remodeling, city planning and promoting tourism, as well as all-day study tours of historic sites.



Nevada County’s rural locale, with hotels and meeting space separated by serpentine roads, is a bit of a gamble.

“We usually go to areas that are more populated and have a larger constituency, like Santa Barbara or Palm Springs,” said California Preservation Foundation Executive Director Cindy Heitzman. “This is our first venture into the foothills.”




A successful conference not only would ramp up local business for four days, but could pave the way for other, lucrative conferences.

“We could prove our ability to put on a good party,” said Nevada County Economic Resource Council President Gil Mathew.

Penelope Curtis first learned of CPF when she ran into snags restoring Grass Valley’s landmark North Star House. The organization helped connect her with architects and educate her on building standards. She started attending CPF’s conferences, and then heard the group was looking for a rural location for its 35th annual conference.

Discussions ensued, and Nevada County landed the convention in fall 2008. Curtis and John Zurflueh became co-chairs of the local organizing committee.

“It’s a perfect fit for us – preserving that which can never be rebuilt,” Mathew said. “We can never build a town people would want to visit again.”

Although the twin cities are replete with freshly painted Victorian homes, there’s still a big gap in most residents’ knowledge about how to preserve the area’s ample collection of Gold Rush-era properties.

“Most people don’t know much,” said Curtis. “You look at a lot of buildings, and by the standards, they’re not restored properly. Sometimes people think it’s too expensive, and they take shortcuts.”

But preserving old buildings is critical to setting Nevada County apart as a tourist destination, distinct from cookie-cutter suburban sprawl.

“When people are looking to take time off from their busy work and family schedules, they’re wanting to find something that’s different, authentic, and has character,” Curtis said. “If city councils and boards of supervisors are just willy nilly and say ‘tear it down,’ you lose the character.”

While Nevada City hosts large-scale events such as the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, a multi-night conference of this scope is unheard of.

It also comes at a busy time for the area: The Amgen Tour of California kicks off in Nevada City the day after the convention ends.

Organizers are worried about the strain the back-to-back spectacles will place on accommodations. If conference attendees don’t book their rooms before a barrage of media and cycling enthusiasts show up, they could end up room-less.

There are also the usual drawbacks. Since Grass Valley and Nevada City have no centralized convention center with adjacent hotels, the organizing committee has to improvise with a network of shuttle buses.

Signage is also a problem; organizers hope a coterie of helpful volunteers and some temporary markers will make up for the lack of wayfinding signs.

CPF is a dry run for future conferences.

“We’ll learn what facilities are conducive to what we need to do,” Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Executive Manager Cathy Whittlesey said.

Sometimes, quaint buildings can have quaint wiring; organizers need to test those logistics.

“If the electricity blows up, we’ll know,” Whittlesey said.

When the conference leaves town, CPF will still be around. Nevada County is one of only three locations in California where the foundation is starting a National Trust grant-funded educational campaign called the Field Services program. (The others are Route 66 and Isleton, a city on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta.)

A CPF representative will stage monthly workshops to educate property owners and city leaders about the finer points of preservation.

The effort starts even before the conference kicks off – a public workshop 6 p.m. Monday at the Miners Foundry deals with financing preservation projects.

“Our legacy is that we’re looking to provide outreach and assistance to the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, to help them with any technical assistance,” Heitzman said. “In the end, what we want to do is make a difference.”

And if enough people get on board with the preservation, the city’s tourism industry wins.

“This is why people go to Europe and Asia. They want to see character, architecture, something different,” Curtis said.

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.


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