Downtown pops with new updates

A new sign sits on the front of Brown’s Shoe Fit on North Dewey Street on Friday. After a construction project removed downtown awnings, new facade improvements have either been installed or are on the way, store owners say.

With its 1970s awnings now in its past, North Platte’s historic downtown has a strong chance of joining the National Register of Historic Places wholesale, local and state historic preservation officials say.

RDG Planning & Design of Omaha won the City Council’s blessing Tuesday to study the downtown area and prepare a formal nomination by next summer.

It’s too early to know the exact boundaries North Platte’s district would include, but they could extend to both sides of the Union Pacific tracks, said a Nebraska Historic Preservation Office official and two members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Final approval by the U.S. National Park Service, which oversees the National Register, would open up federal and state tax incentives for owners of historic buildings to rehabilitate them.

“If you can get the whole district on the register, it saves the individual property owners a lot of headaches,” said local commission member Jim Griffin, director and curator of the Lincoln County Historical Museum.

If all goes as expected, the Park Service could decide whether to add downtown North Platte by next fall, said Kelly Bacon, Certified Local Government coordinator for the Nebraska Historic Preservation Office.

Four downtown buildings already appear on the National Register: the Fox Theater and the Hotel Pawnee (both 1985), the Lincoln County Courthouse (1990) and the Prairie Arts Center in the 1913 U.S. post office building (2009).

The current effort began earlier this year when a couple of downtown property owners asked North Platte’s Historic Preservation Commission about applying individually for the National Register, said Griffin and fellow local commission member Kaycee Anderson.

But Bacon and two of her colleagues urged a downtown-wide nomination when they came to North Platte and discussed the matter with the local commission.

“Really, it’s been in the back of our minds anyway to (try to) put the whole district on the register,” Griffin said.

Besides, Bacon said Friday, the Park Service “would rather see a district nomination.” But “part of the reason we talked to North Platte about listing the downtown was because they removed the awnings.”

City officials in early 2018 tore out the half-block-long roofs, which obscured older and newer buildings alike, over North Dewey Street’s sidewalks from Fourth to Sixth streets.

That kicked off an ongoing series of facelifts to downtown storefronts, which will be followed by utility and street upgrades that include removal and re-laying of the streets’ historic bricks.

The 1970s awnings’ presence “wasn’t a major reason, but it was one of the reasons” state officials didn’t suggest a downtown-wide nomination before, Bacon said.

The state Historic Preservation Office gave North Platte a Certified Local Government “subgrant” to cover 60% of RDG’s estimated $15,895 cost to prepare the National Register nomination. In-kind city services will cover the rest.

North Platte is one of eight Nebraska cities with a historic preservation commission with CLG status. The state Historic Preservation Office must share 10% of its federal historic preservation funds with those cities, Bacon said.

Individual buildings or districts nominated for the National Register must show a “high level of integrity” in location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and historic association, according to the state office’s History Nebraska webpage..

In general, buildings 50 years old or older are worthy of National Register consideration, Bacon said. North Platte’s downtown has plenty of those, she added, even with a sprinkling of buildings from the 1970s or later.

Such “non-contributing” buildings could be included in the district, she said, even if they wouldn’t be eligible for a few years for the federal and state tax incentives a district-wide National Register listing would enable.

Owners of historic buildings within the district would be eligible for separate 20% federal and state income tax credits if they pursue rehabilitation projects, Bacon said.

They’d also qualify for Nebraska’s Valuation Incentive Program, which freezes a qualified building’s taxable value for eight years if its owners finish a rehabilitation project within two years worth one-fourth or more of its value.

“As long as that work doesn’t involve altering the external historic character, it’d qualify,” Griffin said.

The VIP program’s concept differs somewhat from tax increment financing, which keeps tax payments flowing to local governments at a project’s original taxable value but sets aside taxes from the increase in its valuation so a developer can gradually recover certain eligible project costs.

No property taxes would be set aside during the eight-year freeze, but the property owner would continue to pay taxes at the original taxable value, Bacon said.

The property’s valuation then would gradually rise to its new enhanced level over the following four years, according to the state Historic Preservation Office website.

Downtown buildings already on the National Register already enjoy the same federal and state tax incentives. They wouldn’t gain additional ones if the entire district is listed, Bacon said.

The North Platte and state historic preservation commissions must recommend the nomination in turn before it goes to the Park Service. Final action at that level shouldn’t take long if both sign off, Bacon and Griffin said.

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