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.

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