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Local Landmarks Vie for Funding in Contest

By Katie PearceCurrent Staff Writer

The Washington National Cathedral is in the lead right now, with more than 350,000 points, while the Mount Vernon estate and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue trail closely behind. Chugging along the end of the pack, with 4,800 points, is a little house and mill along the C&O Canal.

Those are the current rankings in the Partners in Preservation contest, in which local historic sites are competing — via social media — for a slice of $1 million. The D.C. area is the eighth in the country to be a part of the contest, run by the American Express Co. in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Throughout the region, 24 sites are now vying for funds to complete shovel-ready preservation projects. The popular winner, to be confirmed May 10, will receive up to $100,000. At the halfway point of campaigning now, all of the sites will host open house events this weekend.

The historic spots, which are all run by nonprofits or government agencies according to contest rules, build up points by gathering support through social media sites. A vote on the contest’s website, at, is good for 50 points. And a site earns 10 points each time a supporter checks into its location on Foursquare, posts a picture of it on Instagram, or mentions it via hashtag on Twitter.

This is the first year the contest — which in the past has taken place in New York City, Seattle and Boston, among other areas — has emphasized social media to such a degree. And it could be an explanation for why the more well-known and media-savvy sites are gathering the most points in D.C., compared to contests past.

“We’re actually somewhat surprised with the results this year,” said Tim McClimon, vice president for corporate social responsibility for American Express. In previous contests, he said, “smaller sites that have been able to get people passionately behind them” have taken the lead — in Boston, for example, a rundown carousel edged out the New England Aquarium and the Old North Church.

In the D.C. area, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is standing out as a tough competitor against the national name brands of the National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. “They’re a small entity that’s doing a fantastic job in getting their constituents to vote,” said Robert Niewig, leader of the National Trust’s D.C. field office.

The GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, which is trying to win funds to restore its deteriorating central dome, is now in next-to-last place. “Putting it out there with social media is very hard to do with a small staff” and busy programming schedule, said Rebecca Medrano, GALA’s executive director. “It’s going to be hard for us to catch up.”

But she described the potential funding as “a one-time opportunity we really need to jump on.” As is, Medrano said, any funding the theater does raise goes straight into its “265 days a year in programming.”

Another obstacle for some of the smaller groups has been a lack of experience in social media. Contest organizers have helped with that: After selecting the finalists last fall, “we started training programs with them … to build their social media sites and start building their fan base and friends, so everyone would be on equal footing,” said McClimon of American Express.

For the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy — now in 19th place as it campaigns for funds to rehabilitate one of the dams in the Georgetown park — it’s a new kind of terrain.

Before the contest, “we had a Web page, we had a fairly static Facebook page,” said Ann Aldrich, the conservancy’s executive director. But she noted “most of the board of the conservancy are of an older generation — not digital mavens — so it’s been interesting.”

The Rock Creek Conservancy, which is competing for a project to restore the 16th Street grotto entrance to Meridian Hill Park, has also had to “pick up its game” online, according to executive director Beth Mullin.

She questioned whether the conservancy, now in 17th place in the contest, has been able to capitalize on the park’s popularity and its “media-savvy” neighbors in the U Street area. “I’m just not sure we’ve actually reached them yet,” she said.

Mullin said the conservancy will be present at Meridian Hill this Sunday with a table and tour guides during the park’s most popular ritual, its weekly drum circle celebration.

For a handful of this year’s sites, the contest also creates another type of challenge — internal competition. Seven of the sites, including the Marine Corps Memorial and the Carter G. Woodson Home, are all part of the National Park Service.

“Some of my co-workers are voting for other places and can’t really support this site,” said Joy Kinard, a Park Service district manager who is focused on the Woodson house. The $90,000 requested would go toward restoring the front and rear facades of the Shaw house, where the man known as “the father of black history” lived and worked in the early 20th century.

Kinard said she has reached deep into the network of Woodson supporters to earn points — contacting, for example, the fraternity he belonged to and alumni groups of the schools he attended.

Niewig of the National Trust noted that all of the sites will receive at least $5,000 for participating, and that the pool of money that remains beyond the winner’s award will be doled out to a handful of finalists at the discretion of an advisory committee.

This article appears in the May 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.