ASHLAND — The city of Ashland has been around since its founding in 1846, with roots dating to 1811.

As the city forges into the future, with developments such as the Pump House District, and other expansions like Charles River Laboratories, some residents are concerned about retaining the charm of Ashland’s vibrant past.

“Is there a way to preserve the older homes by incentivizing homeowners to invest in rehabilitation and renovation?” an Ashland resident asked at our “Talk The Vote” listening event last fall.

The answer to that question, theoretically speaking, is yes.

The city’s Community Reinvestment Agreement (CRA), part of the federal program established in 1977, incentivizes property owners to renovate and restore old buildings, said Ashland Mayor Matt Miller.

“But that program is predominantly used in Ashland for commercial buildings,” Miller said.

For example, if a business owner takes up shop in a downtown building that is assessed at $10,000, but invests in renovations and increases the assessed value to $100,000 — the CRA could offer a 50% discount to the newly-assessed value.

In other words, instead of paying property taxes on $100,000, the owner would only pay taxes on $50,000 for a set amount of time.

“It’s a tax credit,” Miller said.

Therefore, the bigger question is how these sorts of programs can be used by homeowners and, say, apartment developers.

That’s part of Kyle von Kamp’s passion.

Von Kamp sat in Denmark on a July afternoon recently, answering questions from a reporter about the challenges that exist in preserving historic homes and buildings in Ashland — and Europe.

“I’m looking out at a historic district right now, but I see high rises also. It doesn’t blend well together,” he said.

Von Kamp, a history teacher in Willard, moved into what is known in Ashland as the Brinton Home in 2006. It’s one of several three-story Victorian-era houses situated on a stretch of Center Street known as the Center Street Historical District.

Center Street Historic District

The history buff publicly opposed the demolition of Ashland’s Hess and Clark building in early 2021. At the time, he urged city officials to place the property on the National Register of Historic Places, which could have led to stackable tax credits to encourage developers to rehabilitate the dilapidated building.

The building, however, was torn down by August of 2021. The developer’s plan is to build a seven-story apartment building that will house 150-300 units overlooking the Urban Meadow planned just beyond the railroad tracks.

The problem with preserving the historical charm of buildings is the cost. Renovating a century-old building does not provide a return on investment quicker than just building something new, said Jason Chio, an Ashland councilman and safety director with Simonson Construction Services Inc.

“The customers need to have a budget to do that kind of thing,” Chio said of rehabilitating an older building. “It’s not less expensive to rehab than it is to build new.”

Most of those expenses come in the form of updating outdated codes, he said. Safety codes, such as installing the proper exit writing, panic hardware on doors, the required amount of doors inside and installing fire sprinklers are all potential struggles when it comes to retrofitting an older building.

“So commercially it can be a mouse trap in order to still preserve what people want to see,” Chio said.

That being said, construction contractors don’t shy away from that kind of work, he said.

“We do new and rehab (construction) equally,” he said. “Rehabs are very interesting, the guys enjoy them, I believe … if the building has good bones, the rehab is not bad at all.”

CRAs are not the only financial incentive available to developers and property owners, said Thomas Palmer, executive director of Preservation Ohio. The statewide nonprofit organization focuses on advocating for the preservation of Ohio’s historic buildings.

Incentives based in state and local tax credits exist. There are even grant-based incentives available, he said.

“One of the key incentives is the Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit, which is one of the most successful of its type in the entire country,” he said.

Brinton House

Since the first round of funding in 2007, the Ohio Department of Development (DOD) has approved tax credits for 562 projects to rehabilitate over 795 historic buildings in 77 different Ohio communities.

“The program is projected to leverage more than $8.09 billion in private development funding and federal tax credits directly through the rehabilitation projects,” reads a press release issued in June from the state DOD.

Palmer said the tax credit amounts to 35% of the qualified rehabilitation expenditures on a project.

Most of the funding went to projects located in larger cities, such as Dayton, Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Former president of Preservation Ohio Marian Vance said that’s not because larger cities are better than smaller ones.

“They’re just more organized. Going after tax credits is not for the faint of heart,” she said, adding the application process can be rigorous in order to ensure proper restoration efforts and techniques.

But the tax credits are sometimes awarded to smaller communities. In 2007, credits went to the Vermillion Institute project in Ashland, and returned to Ashland County a decade later when a credit worth $93,833 was awarded to the Kelley Hardware — Odd Fellows Hall, located at 7 East Main St. in Hayesville.

The building was eventually renovated into three apartment units.

There are also opportunities in the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which offers developers 20% of qualified rehab expenses.

“The state and federal credits are often combined,” Palmer said.

He also pointed to the “massively successful” revolving loan fund developed by Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis focused on preserving significant sites across the Hoosier state.

The program has dulled out grants and loans to hundreds of organizations in Indiana focused on rehabilitation of historical landmarks, said Mark Dollase, Indiana Landmark’s vice president of preservation services.

Dollase said the program, launched in 1974, started with $75,000. It currently sits at $2.3 million available to nonprofits seeking grants worth up to $100,000. 

“Last year, as part of our capital campaign, we got a $5 million gift. So really, there’s $7.3 million available,” he said.

Indiana Landmarks writes matching grants to nonprofits for certain projects, which are applied for. Grants are available to fund 80% of the total project cost up to $2,500 and $3,500 for affiliated organizations.

The loan program offers a 0% interest for a term of six months to a year, depending on affiliations. The rates then increase to 4% and above as time progresses, according to Indiana Landmarks’ website.

“That money is out there right now at about 15 to 18 projects we’re doing. There’s another 10 loans that we have out to community organizations,” Dollase said.

Dollase noted that he’s started to see a critical mass. 

“Once you use our program over and over … you can really begin to see a difference. We often take on the worst properties on a block or neighborhood, and then the market tends to follow,” he said.

Overall, Indiana Landmarks has helped in the restoration of around 615 properties around the state.

“I would encourage community leaders to do something like this in order to benefit the smaller communities in Ohio as well,” Dollase said, adding there are organizations, such as 1772 Foundation, that will help kickstart revolving loan funds.

“The wonderful thing about this program is we are in working with communities to save everything from early 19th century homes, to train depots, old city halls, movie theaters in downtowns, to farmsteads. It just runs the gamut. 

“It’s all important in our history. So if we can affect positive change in communities, that what the revolving loan fund is there for,” he said.

The Pump House Building

As Ashland moves toward developing its downtown by ushering in apartments and other mixed-use buildings, von Kamp hopes officials and developers consider rehabilitation — or at least capturing an aesthetic that matches the charm of Main Street and Ashland’s rich history.

“Why do people like downtowns and old neighborhoods? It’s the character,” he said.

Vance agrees.

“We like our old neighborhoods,” the past president of Preservation Ohio said. “Just what they have meant for the communities — the architecture is significant, what they have meant to the communities is significant. Older is just richer.”

Miller hears that sentiment.

“We can’t afford tearing down anymore old buildings. We don’t want to see any buildings come down in our historic downtown,” he said, referencing the demolition of the former Hess and Clark building and the F.E. Myers buildings, among others.

That being said, he’s excited about the Pump House District because the developer, Brad Wrightsel of Ashland Urban LLC, has indicated an interest in capturing Ashland’s charm with the development.

“Where do we put people who want to live downtown? The Pump House District is our option. It’s a great option. You can easily walk around, you can see downtown. So in order for us to have modern housing downtown, this is our best option. And we have developers that see that vision,” Miller said.

The mayor stated initial discussions with Wrightsel have involved building up modern buildings with an “industrial type feel to them.”

When it comes to the existing Pump House that the Ashland County Board of Commissioners owns, there are two options being weighed by a Manhattan developer, Miller said.

“If possible, they restore it and convert the Pump House into housing, and add onto it a more modern wing that would compliment it,” he said.

The other option involves tearing it down and building something in its place.

“I believe it will be one of those options,” Miller said.

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