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City’s new historic preservation grants offer more eligibility, higher limits

Wednesday, July 24, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Nearly a year after City Council directed staff to increase eligibility for sites in need of funding for preservation of historic structures, a new program will greatly increase funding to those properties.

The Heritage Grant Program opened its application process Monday, operating as part of the Economic Development Department to take over grant-making duties that had previously been handled through Visit Austin. The new effort comes with a $250,000 award maximum – more than four times the previous limit – and broader eligibility for what kinds of organizations and improvement projects can receive funding.

The program will be funded from 15 percent of the city’s annual Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues, with an exact budget expected to be decided by Council in October. Last year historic preservation efforts received $11.2 million total, with some of that money used for site acquisition expenses.

The changes to the property restoration efforts come after years of frustration from the preservation community that the city’s award limits and eligibility requirements barred for-profit businesses and only allowed improvements visible from a public right of way. Because of those parameters, there were multiple years when the city was unable to find enough eligible projects to use its entire allocation for preservation funding.

Alyson McGee, a board member of Preservation Austin and member of multiple city groups that helped rework the grant award process, said it wasn’t practical for many groups to try to fund needed projects with city funds.

“If you can only get $35,000, you might not be able to fully restore a building and so you have to break a project up into so many little pieces that it ends up costing significantly more,” she said. “And limiting it to only exterior work meant that things to make a place visitor-ready, like having a new HVAC system or restoring interiors, wasn’t getting done.”

Sites receiving funding will need to already have some kind of state or local historic designation, or receive one by the time the grant is awarded, to prevent for-profit businesses from using city funds to cover improvement costs that would boost the property’s resale prospects.

Another major requirement for grant selection is proximity to the Austin Convention Center, or a demonstrated contribution to the local tourism industry. Applications for the program are due by Aug. 16.

Melissa Alvarado, manager of the Heritage Tourism Division, said some sections of the city – including downtown and East Austin – already have high concentrations of historic properties that could benefit from the expanded program.

“Those clusters as we start to advance this process will start to evidence themselves,” she said. “My strategy will be to do email and social media and get out going door to door to introduce individuals in historic buildings to this program. … As long as they can evidence they are impacting the tourism and hotel and convention industry, I would encourage them to apply.”

In April, members of the city’s Tourism Commission floated an idea that historic preservation funding would be a way to provide economic assistance to music venues operating in the Sixth Street historic district.

McGee said the funds could create options for arts groups considering property moves in the near future.

“There are also a lot of places where tourists are visiting, like artist studios or small theaters, and those types of buildings can also benefit from that,” she said. “A theater group might decide to purchase a historic building because they know that there are public funds that can help them restore the building, rather than building new.”

Photo by David E Hollingsworth [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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