Emily Manz, Executive Director of Preservation New Jersey interviews Aidita Milsted, Director of Historic Preservation at NJEDA
Emily: Aidita, can you tell me a little about your life? Where did you grow-up?
Aidita: I grew up in Puerto Rico in a college town, Mayagüez. My parents were both engineers and my father was the head of the civil engineering department at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus. I have early memories of playing at the University, running through wind tunnels and watching whole sections of buildings tested for earthquake endurance at a large scale – shaking table and things like that! Because of that upbringing, buildings are in my blood. I lived in Puerto Rico through high school and then went to architecture school at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where I got a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree.
E: When do you think you became interested in historic preservation?
A: I have always liked old buildings. When my family went on vacation, I always wanted to hear everything the tour guide had to say about the buildings.
E: What buildings do you remember from those family trips most?
A: I remember seeing castles in Spain. I also remember taking the classic Washington, DC family trip. I loved the buildings more than anything. We went to all the Smithsonian museums and while my siblings were more interested in the flashier Air and Space Museum (or sometimes the hotel pool), my favorite was always the Museum of American History.
Then, while in Architecture School at the University of Miami, I took a historic preservation class and it was then that I realized historic preservation could be a career.
After finishing my architecture degree, I went straight to graduate school for historic preservation and got my Master of Science degree in historic preservation at the University of Vermont.
E: When did you first start to see preservation as a tool for economic development?
A: My first foray into economic development was an internship for the City of Boston for the Boston Main Street program, which was part of the Department of Neighborhood Development. I saw then how historic preservation helped the economic development of neighborhoods and communities and realized another way to view the field.
E: What brought you to New Jersey?
A: I moved to New Jersey for a job with a cultural resources consulting firm. It was a small firm, so I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of projects. I then worked for a couple cultural resources firms.
E: What came next in your career?
A: Then I was hired by New Jersey’s School Development Authority (SDA) as a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist. At that time, there was a memorandum of agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to have a number of SDA staff members stationed within NJDEP, including one at the Historic Preservation Office in Trenton. My main role was to review school projects for regulatory compliance. I also had the opportunity to work reviewing other work, such as a survey of historic public schools in Newark, and that was a lot of fun.
I did that for two and a half years and then there was a reassessment of the agreement with NJDEP and six of us who were at the NJDEP were brought back to the SDA. I was then given the opportunity to move into what was then called the Design and Construction division of the SDA and started doing Project Management work out of SDA’s regional office in Jersey City. This role gave me a close look at the construction of schools and a more detailed view of all the ins and outs of construction. That role helped me significantly increase my knowledge of construction and the industry as a whole.
After a reorganization within the Authority, I was promoted to Program Director and was put in charge of an interdisciplinary team in charge of project management of school projects. I was in charge of managing design, construction, and demolition contracts. After about eight years in that role, I was given the opportunity to head a newly created Department of Vendor Development, where I was in charge of a managing a number of regulatory processes (such as Contractor Performance Evaluation and Workforce Compliance), and was able to work with businesses that were trying to do work with the state. I was in charge of running a training program for contractors and consultants looking to do work with the state, as well as providing general assistance to vendors. I bring this background to the job I have now.
E: You were at SDA for a long time, what made you want to move to the NJEDA?
A: I was made aware of my current role at NJEDA by a number of friends and colleges, including former SDA colleague who had moved to NJEDA. I applied online and I was hired. I had been at the SDA for a very long time and I was ready for a new challenge. This role as Director of Historic Preservation at NJEDA matched my historic preservation and construction background and interest in economic development, it really felt like a perfect fit.
E: The first major project for you in this role has been the development of the NJEDA’s Historic Property Reinvestment Program – our first state tax credit program. What was key to you in the development of the tax credit program?
A: First of all, it was a big decision to take on this role. I was leaving a place I had worked for 17 and a half years to do something totally new. As it would be the first time we had a state tax credit program, I knew that it was a huge responsibility. I also knew it would be very visible, and that I’d be working on something that people across the state have been pushing for at least 30 years. So, it was a big decision because I knew it was a huge responsibility.
Something that was always on my mind during the development of the program, and that I believe is key, is that this program is only funded under the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act of 2020 for six years. So, as we were thinking about the program, the goal has always been, how can we develop a program that can go beyond those six years, how do we make sure that this program will lasts forever? Therefore, I’ve been very focused on making sure that we collect the right kind of information – data, stories, and other special reporting to capture the real inherent value of historic preservation to economic development and our communities. I am really trying to set in place data collection methods that will allow us to show the good things that the dollars and cents of this program will do for the state. For instance, I don’t want us to just know the eligible costs, but the total costs of a project, which is what really represents the full value and impact of the project for the community and the state. If the developer is spending $10 million in the project, we want to know that, even if only $4 million out of the $10 million are eligible costs under the program. That way we can see the total impact on the economy of our state.
E: How did you determine what kind of data you want to collect from this program?
A: We did a lot of outreach to other states to understand what worked and what didn’t work in the structure and implementation of their historic tax credit programs and asked what information they collected and what information they wished they collected more of. I also spoke with Professor David Listokin at the Rutgers Bloustein School, who prepares the report every year on the impact of federal tax credits for the National Parks Service to understand what data he has and uses and what data he is missing that he wishes he had. I also reached out to historic preservation expert Donovan Rypkema about data to be collected and he was very generous with his time and recommendations, and even provided us with a few contacts in other states with whom we connected.
E: What is the status of the historic tax credit program now?
A: This year we decided to do two application rounds: one for transformative projects and one for regular projects. We are currently taking application for transformative projects until June 7. Since there are projects that qualify under this category, we are looking at this first round almost as a “soft opening” as we go thru the process for the first time.
The window for regular projects is scheduled to open on June 15th.
The proposed rules for the program are currently posted public comment, but we are hoping that final rules will be enacted by the end of June. Those involved in the first round understand there’s some risk involved, but we feel confident that we will have fully adopted rules and be able to award our first project under the program this year.
E: Are you excited about the launch of the program?
A: I am excited to see what happens. Since June of last year, this has been what I’ve been thinking about all day and all night. But it’s also nerve-racking to put a program out there that you’ve been working on for so long. I am sure that we will find things that we wished we had done differently, but we were also very aware that we could not let the perfection get in the way of the good. We know this program can do a lot of goods for property and communities. I am very excited to see properties and communities transformed by this.
We are offering a live, virtual training on May 12th on how to apply to the program. I know from my time working in vendor development how important training and information is and I want this program to be as accessible as possible. People can find more information and register for the training here: https://njeda.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_oZw-WTI1TIqB7RR5kyEXtg
E: Thank you so much Aidita for sharing more about yourself and your work.
A: You’re welcome. Great chatting with you.