By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Georgetown Historic District. Capitol Hill Historic District. Savannah Historic District. All thriving, nationally known cultural centers that attract hundreds of thousands of historic-minded tourists each year.
Developers and officials in Webb City, population 11,600, are taking steps in hopes of one day being added to that list.
“A lot of places, a lot of small towns, fear their downtowns are going to hell,” said Chuck Surface, Webb City’s economic development director. “We are not.”
Webb City has made visible strides in recent years at revamping its historic Main Street, and leaders implemented a local historic district downtown to ensure consistency in aesthetics like paint colors and signs.
Developer Tom Hamsher wants to take it to the next level.
Hamsher, who is nearly finished renovating the former Minerva Candy Co. building at 12 S. Main St., suggested to city officials a few weeks ago that they seek a federal designation. The idea was received favorably by Mayor John Biggs and Surface.
If a section of the city’s downtown were to be added to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, property owners would be eligible for tax incentives and other forms of preservation assistance.
“If I’m going to buy another building, or anyone else is with the intention to remodel like us, it would certainly benefit all of us and promote more work downtown if we can get this designation,” Hamsher said.
Managed by the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places is a listing established by the National Preservation Act of 1966. There are four categories of nomination: A structure, a building, an object or a district, which is more than one historic structure or building.
A listing does not mean that limitations will be placed on the properties by the state or federal government, according to Don Stevens, the National Park Service’s chief of the History and National Register program for the Midwest region.
An initial survey of the proposed historic district in Webb City is complete and officials are beginning the tedious work of preparing an application. In 2010, Webb City was awarded Certified Local Government Status from the Missouri State Historic Preservation office, a preliminary step clearing the road for future federal designation.
The proposed district in Webb City includes six blocks of Main Street and six blocks on Broadway Street. It makes several jogs, but its northernmost boundary is East Austin Street and its southernmost boundary is West Third Street. It also extends along East Daugherty Street. Its westernmost boundary is North Liberty Street, and its easternmost boundary is along Walker Avenue.
The area includes the Middle West Hotel, 1 S. Main St., formerly known as the Grand Opera House and Webb City Opera House. Built in 1883, it was one of the city’s first downtown, commercial brick buildings. It was listed on the National Registry in 1982.
It also includes a bit of historic Route 66, the Route 66 Welcome Center and Minerva Candy Co., among others.
“I have looked at buying other buildings downtown, but I wouldn’t begin to do it if there are no federal tax credits,” said Hamsher. “I wish I had done it before I bought the Minerva. But for anyone else who is going to be interested, it would really benefit all of us if we could take this to another level.”
Nominations are reviewed at the state level by the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The council is a body of preservation professionals and laypersons appointed by the governor to review nominations and provide input on preservation issues.
Once a nomination has been approved, it is submitted to the National Park Service. A decision on whether to list the property is made within 45 days.
Should property owners want to apply for the federal tax credits, the repairs they are doing are expected to follow guidelines established by the secretary of interior, Stevens said.
He noted that a historic district designation also has become a tool communities have used to improve tourism.
“For a fee, the National Park Service will put together an Internet-based travel itinerary for a community that highlights its historic properties,” Stevens said. “The cultural tourism component can be attractive.”
Such was the case for Carthage, Mo., population 14,000, which has four historic districts on the National Register. Some of the buildings date to the 1800s.
“With over 600 buildings in those districts, we are considered one of the largest in the state,” said Wendi Douglas, director of the Carthage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Douglas said the city is using the listing as a springboard for a project to direct travelers to each of the districts. “Probably almost half of our tourism is due to history, either with Route 66 or the battlefield or the Victorian homes, so being listed is definitely a positive,” said Douglas.
Karen Herzog, a member of the Carthage Historic Preservation Committee, said the designation has provided an excellent backdrop for special events, including the Christmas homes tour, that have attracted coverage by national media.
“These historic projects are symbiotic in that they help the city, they bring tourists in, they preserve the heritage,” Herzog said.
Ron Stiles, who purchased an aging building on the southeast corner of the historic district anchored by the Carthage courthouse square, renovated the space into a restaurant, beauty shop and spa five years ago using tax credits.
“The credits can pay anywhere from 15 to 40 percent of your costs,” Stiles said. “I know two or three more people who are getting ready to apply for them to renovate historic buildings on the square. “It will be thriving.”
THE FIRST HISTORIC DISTRICT was located in Charleston, S.C., and was designated in 1931. In 1966, the federal government created the National Register of Historic Places soon after a report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors stated Americans suffered from “rootlessness.” By the 1980s, there were thousands of federally designated historic districts. Joplin has four, Carthage has four, and Neosho, Mo., has two.