Notable Properties: Historic renovation boosts community commerce
By Dianna Borsi O’Brien
Feb. 19, 2010 — John Ott said he was happy to hear that the Berry Building was named to this year’s historical Notable Properties list, but that wasn’t his goal when he set out to bring the old building back to life.
Ott renovated the brick warehouse because it made sense financially — for him and for Columbia.
“There’s no question about the economic development advantages of restoring historic buildings,” Ott said.
The Berry Building is among nearly two dozen commercial buildings named to the list of 120 properties since the City Council’s Historic Preservation Commission started the practice in 1998. The honor acknowledging efforts by owners John and Vicki Ott to bring the declining building back into full commercial use highlights what historic renovation can do for a building — and for the community and its economy.
So where is the proof that historic renovation helps the economy?
Although reports from the state Department of Natural Resources and preservation advocates provide numbers and case histories to back up the argument, the best brick-and-mortar example might be a few blocks from the Berry Building on North Ninth Street: The Blue Note.
In 1998, the live music venue was the first building — and the first commercial building — named to the city’s list of Notable Properties.
Yet, for owner Richard King, such honors aren’t his main concern. In fact, he had to be reminded his building was even on the list.
What he does value is the beautiful historic theater that provides an excellent venue for the bands and musicians he brings to Columbia — and the effect such historic renovations have on Columbia and its economy.
First Things First
“I love beautiful old theaters,” said King, noting that he’d had his eye on that building long before he bought it in March 1990 and moved The Blue Note from its Business Loop location to downtown Columbia. “Let’s face it; they’re not making them (buildings) like that anymore.” King also owns Mojo’s and is in charge of booking and production for the annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.
The former “Varsity Theatre” built in the 1930s was originally one of three theaters on Ninth Street. Only two remain as public venues for entertainment. The other, the Hall Theatre, now houses the restaurant Panera.
But although he loves the beauty and grace of the building, King also acknowledges the dollars his business pumps into the local economy, especially into the downtown business sector.
“If I can bring 600, 700 or 800 people downtown for a show, and they visit downtown restaurants, shops and spend a few bucks, that make the downtown stronger,” King said.
But downtown Columbia isn’t the only sector of the business community that benefits from historic renovations. According to a 2001 report published by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, historic renovations pump money into a wide variety of economic sectors from providing construction jobs to agriculture, transportation and manufacturing.
The report, “Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation in Missouri,” noted that historic rehabilitation provides more employment per dollar than new construction and even more per dollar than other economic activities such as book publishing, aircraft machinery production, chemical production and electronic component production.
Meters Mean Money
Ott, who renovated the Berry Building, said you only have to look at the increase in the number of utility meters or the upswing in utility usage to see the benefits of renovating a building.
The Berry Building was among seven properties named to the Notable Properties at a gala event on Feb. 2 held by the City of Columbia Council’s Historic Preservation Commission.
The event was held in the Tiger Hotel, another building on the list and another property renovated by Ott, this one with business associates Dave Baugher and Al Germond, who own the Columbia Business Times.
When Ott bought the property a few years back, it had about four utility meters. Today it has nearly two dozen utility meters that will put money into the city’s coffers when utility payments are made.
Ott said the Berry Building, a former grocery warehouse built in the 1920s, was in tough shape when he began renovating it. A previous owner had put a metal sheathing under the original roof to catch leaks and had it draining out a window when he acquired the building. Today, it shines with new paint and energy-efficient windows. It houses Wilson’s Fitness Center on its lower level and has openings for retails shops at the street level and 12 luxury lofts on the upper levels.
Ott said the Notable Property designation provides an opportunity to make Columbians aware of the local treasures and to tell the story about the building.
Although some question whether bringing a building back to form is cost-effective, Ott, owner of Alley A Realty, said renovation saves the city and citizens money in the long run. New construction is less costly in terms of building but costs the community more in terms of infrastructure, the requirement for more roads, water mains, sewers and utilities.
Renovation is “green,” or ecologically sound, Ott points out. It saves the cost of the energy it would require to tear down the building and the cost of the energy it would take to build a new building. Another cost that often isn’t reckoned when it comes to building new is the cost of shipping and transporting the materials, which are saved when a building is renovated. Renovation contributes to jobs in construction and businesses that support renovation. Once the building is back in shape and sheltering businesses, it gives a return to the community in terms of sales-tax revenues and property tax revenues.
But what about those tax credits renovators secure? Ott noted such assistance helps make renovation economically possible, but there are restrictions, and the assistance only provides a state tax rebate of 25 cents on each dollar spent on eligible expenses. That means some expenses, which are not eligible, must be born by the building owner. Assistance such as rebates on taxes can end up being more than returned to state coffers in terms of economic benefits, according to the DNR report on the economic impact of historic rehabilitation.
But even if dollars and cents aren’t the criteria, Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Brian Treece pointed out another benefit to Columbia and its business community: “We’re all the beneficiaries of historic preservation when we eat at a nice restaurant and look at the historic ceiling” and when we walk down town by the historic buildings. It also helps people remember their history. Treece noted that the renovation of the Berry Building, which was once flanked by a railroad spur, reminds us that at one time all goods arrived in Columbia via train, not the highway.
Yet Treece is also a businessman; he’s a partner in a marketing firm headquartered in Jefferson City. He knows that it isn’t enough to have nice scenery.
In an e-mail, he said the majority of the development downtown has not been due to new construction but to historic renovation. “People can count on one hand the number of new buildings that have been built (downtown): two law offices, three parking garages, the Methodist church annex and City Hall.”
Then Treece said: “Nearly all of the private investment in downtown has been through historic preservation and renovation on Broadway, Ninth Street, the North Central area, Missouri Theatre, Gentry Building, Howard Building, Stephens’ renovations, etc. That investment should be incentivized and protected.”
Treece, head of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said he’d like to see a day when the historic properties of Columbia make it a gateway or destination city, a place where people come just to enjoy the historic, scenic gems of Columbia. Again, this could mean money for Columbia’s economy.
The DNR report noted “heritage” travel is becoming increasingly important and represented 10 percent of all Missouri travel from 1995 to 1999. The report also noted such travel injects “imported” income into the state’s coffers, money from those who live outside of Missouri. The report said, “Missouri is rich in historic and other interesting sites, which are the core motivations for heritage travel.”
But here in Columbia, business owners such as King and Ott have made it possible for us to do our “heritage” travel by simply walking down Ninth Street and around the corner to Walnut Street.