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May 2004 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Best Tool in the Rehabber's Toolbox
By Jessica Hathaway

It's easy to think that the Missouri cities of St. Louis and St. Joseph have little in common besides the pious pedigree of their names.

But in the latter part of the last century, each community's population was doubling every ten years. In both cities, Gilded Age tycoons made millions in railroads, beer, and meatpacking, and they put much of their wealth on public display in the form of stately homes and public buildings on an equally grand scale. In fact, these barons of industry on opposite sides of the state competed against each other — most notably at the close of the nineteenth century when the civic elders of both St. Joseph and St. Louis wanted to host a World's Fair.

Today, St. Louis is a big city while St. Joseph is a fraction of its size. And although both cities are blessed with an amazing stock of century-old architecture, St. Louis has brought new life to these buildings while, across the state, many of St. Joseph's historic gems have been ignored. As in St. Louis, most of these buildings were in distressed neighborhoods.

But things are changing. Today in St. Joseph, the city's architectural heritage finally is being reclaimed. According to Shelley White, an historic preservationist in St. Joseph, work began last year on more than 40 commercial and residential restorations. In years past, she says, "there would be one or two projects in a year." She remembers the 1990s, when she was "begging people to rehab these buildings. But it would cost more to fix them up than the building would be worth when finished."

Why the surge of renovation in St. Joseph now? Without question, says White, it is because people in her part of the state are waking up to the Missouri Historic Preservation Tax Credit, which exists today, ironically, thanks to the foundation laid by decades of rehabilitation work in St. Louis.

In the early 1980s, St. Louis was the nation's leader in historic rehabilitation, thanks to a federal historic tax credit that was used to rehab much of Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End. That successful program was gutted by Reagan-era tax reforms, but a coalition of concerned St. Louisans stepped up and pushed for a state tax credit for preservation, which became law in 1997. With rehabilitation of historic buildings at a virtual standstill, this group — consisting of historic preservationists, civic organizations, chambers of commerce, labor unions, and others — designed a state tax credit that would refund 25% of the cost of rehabilitation of a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places or located in a certified historic district, along with other requirements.

The Missouri Historic Preservation Tax Credit has helped save St. Louis' historic architecture from the wrecking ball — from the Cupples warehouses downtown and the Continental Building in Midtown to the Chase Park Plaza in the West End. Conservatively, there are 400 buildings being rehabbed in the city as we speak. Nineteen other states have copied our law in an attempt to duplicate Missouri's success while use of the credit here is increasing every year. Recently, St. Joseph and even smaller Missouri cities like Arrow Rock, West Plains, Lexington, and Hannibal, have used the credit to begin to revitalize historic neighborhoods and Main Streets that have fallen on rough times.

But despite the credit's popularity and success, there are state legislators who want to restrict and even eliminate the credit nearly every year. Typically, they cite state budget woes. But this response to the state's financial crisis is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Two independent studies and the state's own data show that the Missouri Historic Tax Credit makes money for the state through increased tax revenues.

This year, the same coalition that helped secure the tax credit's passage in 1997 is closely watching two bills in the Missouri Senate that would cap the number of tax credits that can be redeemed every year, and severely restrict the use of the credit for residential projects. If either of these bills becomes law, it would practically end use of the credit in St. Louis, and also in the state's smaller cities and rural communities where rehabbers are just beginning to use it. In St. Joseph, historic preservationists are up in arms and are mobilizing to defeat the assault on the historic tax credit. In just a few days early in the 2004 session, White and others helped generate more than 200 letters and phone calls from St. Joseph residents to Missouri legislators asking them not to touch the Historic Tax Credit.

Why do we in St. Louis care if the rest of the state misses out on this great rehabilitation tool? Because St. Louis isn't nearly finished using the tax credit downtown and in its neighborhoods, for one thing. And use of the credit in outstate Missouri will help ensure that the tax credit is around for years to come. In a state where so many political issues so often are split at the city limits of our metropolitan areas, the Historic Preservation Tax Credit is the rare economic incentive that is good for all Missourians.

With progressive economic incentives like the Historic Tax Credit in place, perhaps in another 100 years St. Joseph and St. Louis will go head to head again.

Jessica Hathaway is a lawyer and city resident helping to coordinate this year's effort to preserve the Missouri Historic Preservation Tax Credit. To help, contact her at (314) 621-8917 or Jerry Schlichter at (314) 621-6115. You can find out more at

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