SOS heritage: these mayors who fight alone to save their buildings

SOS heritage these mayors who fight alone to save their

For more than nine centuries, the white stones of the Romanesque church of Saint-Symphorien-sous-Chomérac, a town of 800 souls in the heart of Ardèche, have watched over the inhabitants. Almost every day, Dominique Palix passes in front of this building steeped in history, to which a choir and side chapels were added in 1846. “The church is part of the landscape, the inhabitants are very attached to it. But, over time passes, the more we wonder if it will be able to stand up for much longer”, breathes the mayor of the village. Four years ago, this building, built on clay soil and lined with cracks, was placed under emergency order and closed to the public.

In 2020, the results of two successive studies fell like ax. Around 120,000 euros of work would be necessary for a temporary consolidation of the church. For definitive consolidation, the amount explodes: it will take between 500,000 and 700,000 euros. A fortune for Saint-Symphorien-sous-Chomérac, whose annual investment budget does not exceed 20,000 euros. “The calculation is quickly made, we do not have the possibility of taking on such work,” concludes the mayor, disappointed. Like dozens of elected officials from small towns whose assets are dwindling, Dominique Palix faces an impossible equation, which comes back on the table at each municipal council. How can we find the subsidies needed to rehabilitate these dilapidated buildings? What files to fill out, who to contact, within what deadlines? And above all, how can we convince residents – sometimes perplexed – that this investment is worth it?

Administrative headache

“The first headache is the administrative burden of such projects. Sometimes, we have the impression that it is the snake biting its own tail,” describes Dominique Palix. To save her church, the mayor could well rely on aid from the region or department, but this would require carrying out additional studies and estimates “which currently amount to between 45,000 and 50,000 euros” – an investment colossal, refused by the municipal council. Same story from Marc Saintot, mayor of Brie, in the Somme. Since the start of his mandate in 2020, the man has spent a large part of his weekends developing financing plans to restore the village’s Art Deco church, which is in poor condition.

“You have to find out about all the existing aid, apply one by one. Unlike big town halls, I don’t have a team dedicated to this. Everything rests on my shoulders,” he says. With work estimated at around 1 million euros, for a town of 350 inhabitants which only generates 45,000 euros in surplus each year, the mayor knocked on all the doors. State, department, region… Several hundred thousand euros have already been granted, allowing a first phase of work to be carried out. But the mayor sometimes comes up against walls of administrative complexity. “I risk being stuck for the rest of the work. To obtain more aid, the building would have to be classified, for example, with all the constraints that this implies in terms of administrative file, procedures, criteria to be ticked … Which my municipal council refused,” he illustrates.

Online collections

To help these mayors, often stunned by the amount of money to be raised to renovate their old buildings, the Heritage Foundation provides them with an online portal where the subsidies, labels or prizes that could be granted to them are listed. More than 2,800 municipalities are also the subject of an open collection on the Foundation’s website, for a cumulative amount which currently reaches 41.6 million euros in donations. We find, for example, the church of Saint-Symphorien-sous-Choméracfor which 19,000 euros in donations have already been collected at the initiative of a local association, or the royal forges of Guérignyin Nièvre, a large part of the 845,000 euros of work was financed by a donation from the Dassault group. The page dedicated to the Art Deco church of Brie indicates a harvest of 2,550 euros, out of an initial objective of 30,000 euros. “It’s a long way from what we need to complete the project, but it’s a little extra,” comments Marc Saintot.

After applying twice – without success – to the heritage lottery also organized by the Foundation since 2018, the mayor does not despair. Perhaps next year he will be one of the 118 winners selected? “I am also waiting to know if I will be able to benefit from the famous collection for religious heritage announced by Emmanuel Macron in mid-September,” he confides, while the jackpot already amounts to more than 352,000 euros. According to the Foundation’s general director, Célia Verot, around a hundred projects should be selected within a few months to benefit from these funds, intended for buildings located in towns with less than 10,000 inhabitants. “We will analyze priority files due to the urgent need for work, for projects already known to the Foundation or having recently applied,” she specifies.

Autographed slates, works of art and flocked bags

In the meantime, elected officials are competing in inventiveness to make their projects known. In Digny, in Eure-et-Loir, mayor Christelle Lorin is “activating all possible levers” to accelerate the financing of the bell tower of her church, the work of which is estimated at around 1 million euros, including 250 000 to 300,000 euros remaining to be borne by the municipality. The building recently welcomed visitors for Heritage Days, opened its doors during Church Night – with entertainment and candle lighting –, works were taken out of the reserve to attract tourists, a concert should soon be there be organized… Not to mention a slate dedication operation which will be placed on the 500-year-old bell tower during the work – for a minimum contribution of 5 euros – and the sale of bags flocked with the church logo.

“You have to try everything,” smiles Philippe Berger, mayor of Château-Guibert, in Vendée. The town’s monumental neoclassical church was closed in 2018 due to the risk of collapse. Faced with the scale of the work, estimated at 1.5 million euros, the councilor decided to contact Fabrice Hyber, an internationally renowned artist from the town, to offer to create a work inside the building. . “He agreed to decorate it from floor to ceiling, furniture included, and to offer the work to the city,” rejoices the mayor. Cultural and religious activities can be organized there, while this valuable partnership has allowed the elected official to publicize his project, and to release aid which should “well exceed 50% of the initial cost”.

According to the story of Gérard Steppel, mayor of the small town of Marie, in the Alpes-Maritimes, the search for financing can also lead to “very beautiful human stories”. In 2018, the man launched a call for donations “to all the Maries of France”, via the Heritage Foundation, to find the 50,000 euros necessary for the renovation of the village church. The media enthusiasm allowed him to raise more than 75,000 euros. “Donations poured in from all over the world, everyone wanted to pay tribute to a mother, a sister, a grandmother named Marie,” remembers the councilor. The remaining donations allowed him, five years later, to renovate another chapel in the village, a 19th century oil mill, and the communal bread oven. Without getting lost in the financing application files.