Over one million buildings, sites and objects in the United States are on the National Register of Historic Places, the Department of the Interior’s official inventory of historic resources. Among these, over 90 percent are located in one of 13,000 federally-recognized historic districts, including the downtown areas of Fredonia, Westfield, and Warren. Over 600 buildings, alone, are included in the Chautauqua Institution Historic District.
How many does Jamestown have? Not many. Only six buildings in the city are on the National Register. And, for now, the city has no federally-recognized historic districts.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Jamestown is lacking for historic resources. A survey completed over 20 years ago determined that several parts of the city are eligible for historic district status, which means that hundreds of buildings have the potential to be included on the National Register. And several dozen buildings are significant enough to be listed individually.
Despite this level of eligibility, no historic districts in Jamestown have been officially designated for a very simple reason: no one has done the required paperwork.
Why does this matter? Although listing on the National Register is mostly honorary and doesn’t place any restrictions on what a private owner does to a property with their own money, it does give property owners access to special resources to assist with the costly renovations often associated with faithfully preserving an historic asset.
The primary forms of assistance are tax credits. When a commercial building on the Register undergoes a significant renovation, the owner or developer can access federal income tax credits worth 20 percent of eligible project costs. In New York State, you can couple the 20 percent federal credit with a 20 percent state income tax credit. The owner or developer can use the credits to offset their own tax liabilities, or they can sell the credits to one or more investors. The money freed up by these credits creates a pool of capital to devote to the renovation project.
The two most recent Jamestown buildings added to the National Register, the Wellman Building and the former Erie Railroad Station, were listed in order to access the tax credits and complete extensive renovations. With the recent spike in downtown development and growing interest from developers, access to tax credits could potentially enable millions of dollars in new investment in Jamestown.
Numerous communities are already availing themselves of this opportunity, especially in New York. A recent analysis from Rutgers University found that in New York State alone, rehabilitation projects worth $268 million were aided by historic tax credits in 2012. And since 1978, historic preservation projects using tax credits have resulted in nearly $5 billion in additional local government revenues across the U.S. As underutilized older buildings are refurbished, they become centers of new economic activity and attract additional activity and vibrancy to the buildings and blocks around them.
This is why the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, after fielding requests from property owners and developers, has pursued the nomination of the Downtown Jamestown Historic District. Since the middle of last year, the JRC has been assembling the nomination materials and is working with New York’s State Historic Preservation Office to process the materials for federal review. During April, property owners in the downtown area will receive an update on this process, and the JRC will be working with the state to seek feedback and answer questions about the proposed district.
For property owners, the impact is clear. The district will have no influence on what they do with their property unless they choose to utilize public grant money or tax credits to undertake the renovation of a commercial building. If the project is privately funded, they’ll simply have the honor of being part of an historic district. If they do wish to access public grant money or tax credits, their project must follow preservation standards set by the Department of the Interior. Currently, any project in downtown Jamestown that uses public grant money must already follow these standards because of downtown’s eligibility for listing. Once it’s officially listed, tax credits will finally be added to the redevelopment toolbox for nearly 100 buildings.
Additional information on the National Register and historic tax credits, visit www.nps.gov/nr and www.nysparks.com/shpo. And for more information on the process now underway in Jamestown, call 664-2477×233.
This post appeared in The Post-Journal on March 31, 2014, as JRC’s biweekly Renaissance Reflections feature.