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Historic preservation ordinance has been critical to reinvestment in downtown Rome

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The Georgia Department of Community Affairs Revolving Loan Fund has contributed $5,220,818 since 2000 while the Georgia Cities Foundation Revolving Loan Program has injected $4,341,400 into Rome.

"We would not be able to receive those funds, Georgia Heritage grants, without having a Historic Preservation Commission,” said Amanda Carter, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. "I think if you asked most of the owners, they would say they could not have done their projects without the loans. I definitely think they are the reason we've had so many successful projects."

The Historic Preservation Commission came under scrutiny in 2017 as part of a special analysis undertaken by a new city Business Development committee. Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson said commissioners had been hearing from the community that either the processes (of redevelopment) were not fluid or information was somehow disjointed.

A report issued by the Georgia Cities Foundation last year indicates that from 2002-2017, Rome received 18 loans from that program, greater than any other city in the state. Augusta was next with 13 followed by Thomasville with 8.

Rome has been a Georgia Main Street city for years. To maintain Main Street status, the Downtown Development Authority has to complete an annual assessment of how it meets the criteria to retain its Main Street designation. A series of 10 standards for accreditation includes a historic preservation effort. Historic preservation is at the heart of the whole reason for the Main Street programs existence.

The assessment checklist related to historic preservation states that historic properties in a typical downtown retail and commercial district add value to the entire community. The document reads, “Main Street programs that have embraced a strong historic preservation ethic are successful in saving, rehabilitating and finding new uses for traditional commercial buildings.”

Over the last 20 years Rome has been a virtual, make that actual, poster child for embracing the preservation ethic. Start with Levy and his partners repurposing of the old Forrest Hotel into the Forrest Place apartments, or Greg Sumner’s more recent work at the old Griffin Hardware building at 215 Broad St. into a mixed-use retail and residential development, or the multiple efforts to rehabilitate the old Greystone Hotel into apartments for adults with a variety of challenges.

Both the Greystone project and the Griffin renovation received state income tax historic rehabilitation tax credits which would not have been possible if Rome were not a "Certified Local Government." Having a Historic Preservation ordinance and commission is also a requirement for the CLG designation. Cave Spring, for example, is not a CLG.

“Take the Forrest Hotel property, if we hadn’t gotten those loans, we couldn’t have done the project,” Levy said. “The same thing for the Battey (now a Hawthorn Suites).”

Levy and his partners got three separate loans totaling $750,000 for those projects.

“The thing I like about these kind of loans are they are not grants. You’re paying back the money into the loan program, and as soon as they’re paid back they take those funds and put them back into the community again, so they’re great loans by the government,” Levy said.

HPC Chairman Harry Wise said he looks at the historic preservation ordinance and commission itself as being as much of an economic driver as a preservation agent.

"Preserving the historic nature of our city and those areas that have been designated historic districts certainly impacts the economy, and that has been shown by all of the money we've been able to obtain through grants and private investment," Wise said.

At one point in 2015, Rome had maxed out its borrowing capacity for both of the state loan programs, which do not allow more than 15 percent of its outstanding loans funds to be concentrated in any one city.

The importance of the Historic Preservation ordinance and commission is pointed out in the Main Street assessment document, which calls for the adoption of a long term preservation-sensitive planning and land-use policies, and removal of barriers to downtown reinvestment.

Carter said the historic nature of the downtown district has been instrumental in much of the interest in redevelopment of properties.

"I got an email who was a developer from out-of-town who wanted a list of available properties for sale just because he had visited Rome recently," Carter said.

She said he was particularly interested in properties with upper stories that could be developed for residential use.

Access to the low-interest state loans pools is not limited strictly to projects that are of a historic nature. The Hampton Inn received a $250,000 loan from the Georgia Cities Foundation for its hotel at 875 W. First St.

The Business Development committee recommended that in order to enhance future redevelopment in the downtown district, someone on the planning staff be designated to personally walk project developers through the process. That fell on the shoulders of Senior Planner Bryan King, however he left at the end of the year and new Planning Director Artagus Newell has been assigned that responsibility, at least until a new senior planner is hired.