Monday, April 18, 2011

How National Register Listing Can Attract Business

Our small town was once a bustling metropolis.  Okay, not really, it's always been a small town, but all of the empty buildings downtown used to be full of stores, restaurants, and other businesses.  Today, we have a few businesses and some traffic, but nothing like the photos of 50 years ago.  What happened?  The main road bypassed town.  Fortunes changed as employment at the chemical plant dropped to less than a quarter of its peak.  Reliable cars and improved roads made it easier to drive farther for supplies.  So today, we're left with a downtown full of empty storefronts.

In the last several years, a renaissance of sorts has begun with the old hotel reopening.  The owner has helped restore several other buildings so we now have a cafe/coffee shop to complement the well-known locally-owned home style restaurant and an artisan's shop to complement the art gallery that has been here for years.  These are wonderful businesses for a county that has embraced tourism as one of its future economic drivers.

The town has outgrown its old office building just off of Main Street and needs to either build new or rehabilitate an existing downtown building.  This is not a rich town so all expenditures undergo extensive scrutiny.  A local developer has offered to purchase the empty old furniture store on Main Street, rehab it, and rent it to the town with the option to buy in the future.  The idea is that this could bring a viable entity to downtown that could entice others to rehab other buildings and make downtown a vibrant place once again without costing the town as much as it would if they were to pay for the construction themselves.

So what is the sticking point?  The developer won't begin the project unless the downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  This makes perfect business sense.  If the building is listed or in a district that is listed, then the developer will be able to take advantage of federal and state tax credits to reduce the cost of the rehabilitation by up to 45%.  Furthermore, National Register listing can help attract other investment downtown because other developers can take advantage of tax credits as well.   

There is some concern among residents that having a National Register Historic District will limit the town in some way.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Unless the town creates a local historic district with local zoning ordinances, building owners are able to do as they please with their National Register buildings.  Being registered encourages owners to be good stewards of the buildings, but there is no legal means of making sure that happens.  Registered buildings are eligible for state and federal rehabilitation tax credits of up to 45% and technical assistance from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for such projects.  

A small investment of $10,000 for a consultant to prepare the National Register nomination will help us to get a new town office building, and potentially attract businesses, and their accompanying tax dollars to downtown.  The town can help its residents embrace the future through the county's tourism initiative and other local business so the next generation will live in a bustling metropolis and the empty buildings will be but a memory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Buildings Aren't Consumables

When did Americans become so reactive instead of proactive?  Why do we wait until something reaches a critical point before we fix it rather than treating it early, before it gets to the critical point?  Why do we throw money at the effects rather than the causes?  Why do we discard rather than repair?  When did we become such a consumer society? 

What do these questions have to do with historic preservation?  A lot.  Preservationists understand the importance of being proactive with an old or historic building to reduce costs and maintain the life of the building:
  • Being proactive will save money over the life of the building.  Buildings fall down or become extremely costly to restore if we wait until the roof leaks or the windows fall out or the termite damage is visible before we fix them.  Inspect the building at least yearly.  Spend money to repair the roof when damage is evident, get out the glazing putty when the windows panes are loose, and spray for bugs yearly. 
  • Fixing the cause will save money by fixing the effect. Rather than just fixing the bubbling plaster wall, determine what is causing the plaster to bubble in the first place.  Is it caused by water coming in the wall?  How is the water getting in?  Is the gutter in the wrong place?  Are the window sills holding water instead of shedding it?  If you don't fix the underlying problem, the plaster will keep bubbling and you'll continually need to spend money fixing it.
  • Repairing saves money and often lasts longer than replacing.  Your old windows are hard to raise and you need to put a stick in the track to hold them up?  Fix them!  You just need to open up the trim and attach new rope to the weights.  Add some weather stripping and new storm windows if they're drafty.  It'll save you more money than you think because you won't have to replace your new vinyl windows yet again in 20 years when they cloud up.
  • Buildings shouldn't be considered consumables.  A well-maintained old building can last hundreds of years.  The materials and workmanship used to construct old buildings are often not available anymore.  The dimensional lumber, hand-formed bricks, old-growth wood, and other materials are far superior to what is available today and will likely last longer than most buildings constructed today of less robust materials.  Why spend the money to bulldoze a perfectly viable building built of high quality materials for something built from lower quality materials?  Rehabilitate, reuse, don't bulldoze.
Preservationists get it.  Spend a little time or money now, save lots of time and money later.  Now if we can just break the rest of America from reactive and consumptive habits...

Monday, April 4, 2011

We Need More Historic Building Tradespeople!

I may have mentioned before that it is nearly impossible to find anyone in our area that knows how to work on an old house (or new one for that matter, but that's another story).  In addition to working on our own rehabilitation projects, we are both museum directors responsible for historic house museums and their upkeep.  At home, we can take things apart, work on them, put them back together, and learn during the process. At work, it's not our responsibility (thank Heavens!) to fix bubbling plaster or make the windows functional again. But, that means we have to find someone who can.  And not just someone who can, but someone who knows what they are doing.

We may live in Virginia, but we are far from Jamestown, Williamsburg, Richmond, and the historic places where buildings matter.  We are in the mountainous southwestern part of the state that was settled much later than the east.  Our county has just celebrated its bicentennial.  The farther south and west you go, the younger the community.  And, for whatever reason, there isn't a reverence for historic buildings that translates to their upkeep.  People revere the land that their ancestors have owned for generations and will gladly point out their homeplace.  But, more often than not, that homeplace is falling to the ground.

So when it comes to finding someone to do plaster work, properly repoint brick, repair wooden windows, or replicate old woodwork, it's nearly impossible.  The trades consist of vinyl, vinyl, and more vinyl: siding, windows, porch columns...  Replace it don't fix it.  Just another example of our throw away society.  Throw away the old, dependable fixtures.  Throw away money.

Our consumptive Walmart society is one problem.   The American view that all children must go to college to be successful is also problematic.  No matter that a person who is successful at a historic building trade is likely to make more over their lifetime than many college graduates and not spend their life paying back college loans.   There is an unfortunate stigma related to the trades, that can lead high school students who would be far happier working with their hands tackling a new preservation problem to a long, struggle through college classes and an unsatisfying desk job. 

And for those high school students who might want to pursue historic building trades, they probably don't know the opportunity exists.  In our area in particular, it is likely that students don't recognize that historic buildings are different than new construction.  If their school happens to have a technical track, it is likely they will build a new vinyl house with metal studs.  A two-pronged approach requires an understanding of the built environment and different types of construction, as well as the technical skills and critical thinking required to build or repair different types of buildings.  Until we can make the preservation trades a mainstream educational track, it will be difficult to find young people to replace the older generation and it will be come increasingly harder to find someone qualified to fix the amazing features of old and historic houses.  

Note: The Preservation Trades Network preserves and teaches historic building trades and is working to develop education initiatives to keep the trades alive.