Tuesday, May 18, 1999
Historic preservation study: Restoring old buildings a boost for cities

By DIRK FILLPOT

Staff Writer

Historic preservation proponents say a recent study that shows their efforts can provide economic benefits in Texas is a long - awaited victory.

Abilene was one of nine Texas cities to participate in the study by the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, Texas Perspectives and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study presented at a Texas Historical Commission meeting in Austin on May 1 found that costs for preserving a historic building were about equal to constructing a new building; towns with historic structures attract higher income and longer-staying tourists; and historical designations improve property values.

"It's good news for historic preservation," said Larry Abrigg, the city's historic preservation official. "I think this is something a lot of us who worked on preservation have known for quite a while."

Abrigg said he was pleased with the study's findings about economic impact of preserving buildings versus erecting new ones, tearing down a long-held belief.

"It surprises me to the extent that we were told by the development community that new construction provides more economic benefit," he said. "We almost match them dollar for dollar."

Ruby Perez, director of the Abilene Preservation League, said preservationists are now armed with facts.

Historic preservation is something people have always liked, but it was from a feel-good, nostalgic approach," Perez said. "This study gives us hard data and dollars to substantiate the benefits of historic preservation."

The study also concluded that tax incentives, such as those offered in Abilene, generate revenue for the city. It found that Abilene's $23,000 in property tax reductions for the city's 97 historic properties has generated more than $5 million in reinvestment in the city's historic neighborhoods.

The study also found preservation activities:

  • Generate more than $1.4 billion to the Texas economy annually, supporting 41,000 jobs.
  • Yield higher property values (properties with historical designations increased in value by 5 to 20 percent).
  • Enhance community pride and boost the economy.
  • Encourage tourism. Heritage travelers inject more money into the community than non-heritage tourists.
  • Become popular destinations for tourists, especially museums.
  • Created 2,400 jobs and $87 million in state income annually through Texas Historical Commission's Main Street Program , a program Abilene does not participate in.

The study concluded that historic preservation created 40,685 jobs, $890 million in income and $1.192 billion in wealth for Texas in 1997.

Perez and Abrigg said the study's findings are well timed because the Texas Legislature is considering funding for rehabilitating county courthouses and whether to reduce funding for historic preservation.
"This helps us strengthen our case to the Texas Legislature that historic preservation makes good economic sense," Perez said.

Although historic preservation is not the mainstay of Abilene's tourism industry, Nanci Liles, executive director of the Convention and Tourism Bureau, said the city's history is emphasized to tourists at the visitors center where a pamphlet mapping out historical sites downtown is made available.

The city's roster of 109 historical properties may increase if the Abilene City Council grants historic overlay zoning to the Rhodes Building, future home of the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, during its May 27 meeting.

Denton, Texas

Despite its proximity to a major metropolitan area, Denton, Tex., (pop. 72,000) remains fiercely independent from its neighbors to the south-Dallas and Fort Worth. The city has created its own identity and secured a permanent place in the tourism annals of northern Texas.

The most important influence on Denton's growth has been its two higher education facilities, the University of North Texas (UNT) and Texas Woman's University. Denton may be best known as a mecca for jazz musicians who flock to UNT to study this all-American brand of music. But, the town is also becoming increasingly well known for the revival of its vibrant downtown area.

Founded in 1856, Denton originally consisted of33 blocks with a public square. As the county seat, Denton thrived; the square bustled with activity on Saturdays when farmers and townsfolk gathered to trade and catch up on the latest news. Downtown remained the shopping hub for many generations.

In the 1980s, suburban sprawl started to take its toll, and downtown Denton began to feel the squeeze of modernity . Store owners tried to lure tenants and shoppers by covering brick facades with metal and stucco to imitate the "new look" of malls and shopping strips. As one downtown employee recalls, "I was working on the square during its last hurrah of the late '70s when you could do all of your Christmas shopping by walking around the square during lunch. I was also there in the mid-'80s when there was no place to even buy a greeting card."

In 1986, the community mounted a public campaign to restore the Courthouse on the Square. A $3.5-million
restoration of the 1896 Romanesque courthouse was the catalyst for the current revitalization efforts. Since the courthouse restoration, utility lines have been buried, with the curbs reconfigured to include comer extensions and ramps. In the process, an additional 60 parking spaces, external lighting on buildings and in trees, and new traffic signals were added.

Denton also raised $1.7 million to renovate downtown's Campus Theater and it has been worth every penny. A movie house for nearly 40 years, the theater closed its doors in 1986; a decade later, it reopened as a live theater.

Despite the changes, the theater has maintained the look and style of its heyday; it hosts approximately 54 productions and events annually and has spurred redevelopment in the surrounding area. Today, the Campus Theater anchors a growing arts and entertainment district.

Private investment in downtown has swelled to more than $18 million since 1989. There has been a net gain of 138 new businesses and more than 600 new jobs. The occupancy rate has risen from 70 to 98 percent in the last nine years, and 26 loft apartments have been created in the upper floors around the square.

Throughout the downtown area, boarded-up buildings have taken on new life as revitalization spreads outward from Courthouse Square. Special events downtown attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, adding to the vibrancy and vitality of Denton 's small-town atmosphere. Now a destination, Denton thrives on its reputation as a mecca for music, shopping, history, education, and cultural opportunities.

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