The Highland Park Historical Society hopes to preserve the Stupey Cabin, a relic of the city's past, while building a more solid financial path into the future.
The cabin needs about $100,000 in work — a mix of badly needed repairs to the structure and long-term maintenance to preserve it, according to Rob Rotering, president of the Highland Park Historical Society.
Recently, the society applied for a state grant of $62,800 through the city, which acted as the official grant applicant. Should it not be awarded the grant, the historical society will turn to private donors and other agencies in town, like the city, park district and library, to form a plan to save the cabin, Rotering said.
It's a conundrum faced by other historical societies in the Chicago suburbs: How do you preserve aging treasures of the past with limited or shrinking funds?
Collaboration will be key, Rotering said.
"The world has changed, and a number of these (historical societies) have really struggled, including the Highland Park Historical Society," said Rotering, who is married to Mayor Nancy Rotering.
"The flip side of that is we're doing things to reinvigorate our mission that are relevant to people now," he said.
The cabin is owned by the historical society; the land beneath is owned by the city and the park district.
And while, the city awarded the historical society a $10,000 grant this year, there hasn't been any consistent funding arrangement with either the city or park district over the years.
That's something Rotering hopes to change over time. Since joining the board four years ago and taking over as president, which is a volunteer position, in 2012, Rotering's made some changes to improve the economic health of the organization, he said. But it remains a work in progress.
"The first thing we have to do is prove our relevance. Once you're relevant, you can ask for more money," he said.
From fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2012 — the most recent year of tax documents available on the state attorney general's website — the historical society's net assets dipped from about $664,000 to $438,000, a decrease of about 34 percent.
The drop in assets was tied to the decline of the market, he said, but expenditures were also outpacing revenues.
In an effort to right the ship, Rotering has trimmed spending while also expanding community outreach and fundraising efforts. A separate fund was established for the Stupey Cabin; two summer picnics have netted about $9,000 toward its needed repairs, he said.
As for proving relevance, the historical society has made a concerted effort to engage the school district, city, park district and library in discussions on long-term partnerships, Rotering said.
"By demonstrating our value on behalf of residents and the city," he said, "we hope to then work toward a sustainable model that will ensure the documents and artifacts and cabin owned by the historical society are preserved for residents for the long term."
The historical society became the official repository for old city documents last fall. And North Shore School District 112 third-graders will learn about the Stupey Cabin this year as part of the curriculum on local history, Rotering said. Reaching the youth, and their parents, is key to the historic society's success, he said.
Board member Joe Peddle lauded Rotering's leadership.
"If Rob wasn't here, the place would have gone bankrupt," Peddle said. "He watches every penny."
There are similar struggles in other communities. Deerfield is rich in pioneer buildings but much less so in money to maintain them, said Donna Stupple, a board member of the Deerfield Area Historical Society. Stupple has submitted articles to the Tribune on Deerfield history.