Georgians interested in historic preservation will be in Rome on Thursday for an all day session that will shine a light on the importance of preserving the past. Rome was chosen to host the event, in part because the city has essentially been a poster child for downtown preservation and rehabilitation’s contribution to economic redevelopment.
Longtime Rome historic redeveloper Ira Levy said the benefits to historic preservation not only come from saving a community’s history, but from keeping a part of the community alive.
“We’ve seen the benefits of restaurants and businesses and people walking around downtown,” Levy said. “Rome is known across the state for its vitality.”
Levy, who has served on the board of directors of the Georgia Trust for Historic preservation, said Rome being selected to host Preservation Celebration — the statewide preservation month conference — is quite an honor.
“They could have gone to a lot of places across the state but they selected us,” Levy said.
Though activity has slowed in recent years, Rome has been a leader among all of Georgia’s cities when it comes to tapping into the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Downtown Revolving Loan as well as the Georgia Cities Foundation Loan programs. At one point Rome was even shut off from receiving loan funds from both programs because it had reached caps placed on the percentage of loan funds that could be invested in any one city.
Downtown Development Director Amanda Carter said that since 2000, Rome has benefited from $9,276,218 in DCA and Georgia Cities loans that led to a total re-investment of $47,204,277 in downtown Rome alone.
Mark Floyd partnered with Rene Fountain to renovate the old Esserman & Co. building in the 400 block. Floyd rehabbed the former Greener Burger building in the 300 block on his own. Loan programs have provided better financing at lower rates to incentivize the work, Floyd said.
“It really is beneficial,” Floyd said. He took advantage of the state loan programs at the Greener Burger, but is seeking to use historic redevelopment tax credits at the Esserman building.
Speakers at the program Thursday will include Paul Pierce, the artistic director from the Springer Opera House in Columbus; Bettijo Cook Trawick and Rodney Mims Cook Jr., from Save the Fox in Atlanta, The Historic Ritz Theatre; Leigh Burns of the Fox Theatre Institute; Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation; Lydia Simpson, program manager at the Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation; Jessica Reynolds, director of the Downtown Development office in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs; Sarah Rogers, certified local government director for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources State Historic Preservation Office; and Connie Tabor, community development director for the city of Toccoa.
Sessions will focus on factors that shaped preservation efforts that go back nearly two centuries, while at the same time seeking to preview how architectural, archaeological and cultural opportunities could shape the future of communities across the state.
Historic preservation has been a boon for economic development in Rome.
“It is definitely one of the reasons our downtown came back,” said Brittany Begley Griffin, a preservation specialist in the Rome Floyd Planning office. “Because of historic preservation we were able to get the Main Street program, which is actually a baby for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”
Griffin said use of historic rehabilitation tax credits in recent years has been a major factor in several projects. The federal government offers 25-percent tax credits for historic rehab and the state offers 20-percent tax credits. Property owners who are certified for the tax credits are also eligible for an 8½-year property tax freeze.
“If you’re rehabilitating a commercial building or a residence and it’s a $4 million project, is it really worth it if you don’t have any incentives? Because we have historic preservation and it costs you $4 million, you’re going to get back $1.5 million in taxes,” Griffin said. Then there is the 8½-year property tax freeze to consider as an additional benefit. Any rehabilitation project is likely to significantly increase the property value and, subsequently, taxes. The 8½-year property tax freeze extends those benefits. After nine years, the property owner would pay 25 percent, at 9½ years, it’s 50 percent and at 10 years the full tax levy is imposed.
Floyd said that if someone is considering an application for tax credits, to do it during the planning phase and not make that decision after work has started. That happened to him and Fountain after they got into the Esserman building, and resulted in a number of changes to work that had already been done for the purpose of maintaining as much of the historic aspects of the original structure as possible.
“It makes it a whole lot easier if you do it at the start of the project and get approval of people at the state. It’s kind of hard to back up and try to do it. It costs you more money,” Floyd said.
In spite of the additional costs, Floyd is convinced of the importance of historic preservation.
“The downtown area has great heritage. It’s been around, it’s got all the ingredients for a great place for people to live, eat, have entertainment. It’s great to have something that is historic and beautiful, and it just looks great for the whole community,” Floyd said.
“It’s a great way to re-invest not only in residential districts but in your economic cores like Broad Street,” Griffin said. Of course rehabilitation of commercial properties is typically accompanied by differing levels of job growth.
DDA Director Carter said loan activity has been a little slower than usual the last couple of years, but she does have one application for low-interest loan funds that will be presented to the DDA board for approval soon.
“I think some owners have been able to get full funding from their banks and don’t necessarily need the gap financing,” Carter said. “We still have so many projects going on.”
Visitors from all around the state for the preservation session Thursday will get a chance to see what has happened in Rome over the last two decades for themselves.
The Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation will be the beneficiary of revenue generated by the conference. The theater itself has been significantly transformed over the last 20 years by a combination of public and private financial assistance and is once again a vibrant contributor to the downtown district, hosting conferences and a variety of performing arts options.
The Thursday conference will open at 8 a.m. and run through 5 p.m. For more information visit www.thedesoto.org.