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Out of the Old Comes the New
By Anita Walker, SHSI Administrator
When I think of historic preservation, I love to think about the amazing makeovers. I love to walk one day through a neglected old warehouse or hotel, peeling plaster hanging from the walls and ceilings, junk piled high, stepping carefully over pigeon you-know-what, wondering how any community could ever have turned its back on that once grand opera house or Carnegie library, centerpieces of their towns. And then watch a community rally around the restoration of these buildings.
I love to hear the stories of the people today who, ignoring the rolled eyes and shaking heads of friends and neighbors, carefully, persistently invest time, sweat and money to bring these gems back to their original glory. The people who could see past the bad paint and shag carpet, and know that underneath it all was a building that would never be built today, with a story that means so much more with age.
I love to hear about how they researched the history of the building, found a carpenter who could replicate the missing cornice board, or a stonecutter who could duplicate a missing piece of sandstone. The detective work, the craftsmanship, the mid-project disasters. The work of historic preservation is filled with pain and glory, mystery and suspense, heartache and pride and joy.
I love the stories of the re-birth of our wonderful historic buildings.
I don’t like stories with words like “tax credits.” Two little words. It’s probably because one of the words is “tax” and that immediately sounds uninteresting. But I’m here to write about tax credits today, though I’d rather write about the Orpheum Theater restoration in Sioux City and the tale of it’s chandeliers hidden under a drop ceiling, or any of the wonderful preservation projects from one end of the state to the other that are revitalizing our cities and towns, providing funky new housing options, office space for new ideas, performance spaces, cultural variety, and new energy to sagging streetscapes.
The thing is, a lot of these wonderful preservation projects would never have happened without historic preservation tax credits. So as mindnumbing as this topic sounds, it’s really important. The State Historical Society is responsible for Iowa’s historic preservation tax credit program. In fact this program is so popular that at the end of last year people were standing in line to get some of those credits to the year 2017. In the past five years these tax credits have leveraged $188 million dollars in private investment in Iowa communities, driving the restoration of the Firehouse Brewery in Red Oak, the Ziepprecht Building and the John Bell Block in Dubuque and the Heritage House in St. Ansgar, among others.
Last year the legislature allowed another $40 million in tax credits just for our new Cultural and Entertainment Districts over the next ten years, and the first five of those years are already spent.
In every corner of the state, developers are investing private funds in partnership with this powerful state incentive to revitalize downtowns, increase housing opportunities, preserve the special historic fabric of our Main Streets and create an exciting cultural climate which invites visitors and residents alike.
Quite a story.
I’d still rather write about the makeovers.