Downtown meeting

Dozens of downtown Kendallville building and business owners gathered at the Kendallville Chamber of Commerce Monday evening to get more information about a $2 million PreservINg Main Street grant the city was awarded from the state and what it would take for them to participate.

KENDALLVILLE — Kendallville Chamber of Commerce staff had to pull out about every chair in the place to have enough seating for downtown business owners in a well-attended informational meeting about the city’s $2 million PreservINg Main Street grant Monday.

Considering that building owners could get some major facade renovations done for a relatively small financial input from their own pockets, more than 40 people showed up to learn more about what’s available to them.

Kendallville was selected as one of two communities receiving $2 million in grant dollars from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs for the brand new pilot program.

Kendallville was one of five finalists out of more than 25 communities that applied for what OCRA said was going to be a sole winner, but the state agency ended up awarding two grants with the other going to Brookville in southeast Indiana.

The PreservINg Main Street grant is aimed at preservation of historic downtowns in the state, with OCRA teaming with Indiana Landmarks and Indiana Humanities to assist communities in making preservationist improvements to their communities.

On Monday evening, building owners learned more specifics about the program from Kendallville Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kristen Johnson, who had been part of the city’s team working on the grant, as well as Main Street consultant John Bry and Mayor Suzanne Handshoe.

Facade work only

The $2 million grant can be used only for permanent improvements to street-facing facades of buildings within the downtown historical district. Period.

That means awnings and signage are not included, Johnson said, but there’s still lingering questions about whether roofs are OK and other niche improvements that came up Monday such as things like tiles or stone markers in the ground in front of some buildings.

Basically, the state is looking for “wow” factor, building improvements that it can show off to other communities chasing similar grants in the future, and projects that could be replicated in any community, Johnson said.

“It’s only for the front or the most visible of the facades … it’s not for the backs of the building,” she said. “It is curb appeal, and I think $2 million is going to go a long way for curb appeal in our downtown.”

Big transformations are what the state would like to see, more so than smaller maintenance projects and fixes to buildings.

“We want to see the ones that have the most impact,” Bry said.

While the city talked in its pitch to OCRA about doing a “demonstration block,” renovating a full city block of buildings to make a statement, on Monday city leaders said that any and all buildings in the downtown are eligible and that the scope of work isn’t limited to just one or two areas.

15% buy in

The grant is worth $2 million and the city needs to come up with a 10% match of $200,000 to support the project long-term.

But city officials also announced Monday that they’ll be asking building owners to chip in 15% of the cost toward any work they may get approved through the grant, in hopes of stretching those dollars as far as possible.

That’s a much more generous split than the city’s current facade program offered through the Kendallville Redevelopment Commission, which are funded at 50/50 and only up to $15,000 in city funds.

Handshoe said the state had suggested a little higher match, but the city decided 15% as a way to get building owners to have some “skin in the game,” but not so much that it was likely to discourage them from participating.

Johnson said there’s no cap on price for any one project, so the city could take on a larger, more expensive transformation project if a building owner is willing to go for it.

That being said, building owners are being asked first if they’re interested and if they’d be willing to put up 15% matching funds.

For those that are, Bry said he could arrange a meeting with the in-house architect from his firm to meet individually with owners and talk through what they’re looking to do with their building and do some preliminary architecture design.

Johnson noted that because its a state grant — a grant that is actually federal dollars funneled through the state — there are additional requirements that are going to have to be met in terms of design and contracting beyond what building owners may be used to through the less stringent city facade grant program.

Bry said while his in-house architect can help get people started, final detailed design work will likely have to be done by an architecture firm the city hires to design its entire facade project. The project will also have to be bid out competitively to contractors, so that adds another layer of pre-construction time, effort and expense.

“We do have to get bids. We’re required through the grant to get bids for all the work,” Johnson said. “We’ll try to do it as affordably as possible.”

Design work will need to be completed over this winter, with bidding coming in spring and construction starting by summer, Johnson said. It’s an “aggressive” timeline, but the city has two years to utilize the grant funds.

What’s ‘historic?’

One interesting question lobbed at city leaders Monday was this: In a downtown built pre-1900, then rebuilt and expanded and modified numerous times over the decades, what point in history are owners expected to restore?

Bry, who works intensely with historic preservation, tackled that question with gusto.

With historic preservation, there’s no set year or look communities are bound to. Nor is there a requirement to be 100% faithful to a particular motif. And building owners aren’t expected to try to rewind history to put back features that had been long destroyed or usurped by something slightly more recent in a building’s long history.

For example, Bry said, the Strand Theatre looked very different in the early 1900s than it does today. But the mid-20th century renovations made to the Strand as a movie theater as opposed to an opera house is the motif that Kendallville most fondly associates with that building and is what the city should seek to preserve instead of rewinding back more than 100 years and erasing what’s there now.

In other examples, several Kendallville buildings once had third floors that were lost to fires. Building owners aren’t expected to add another level to their buildings to make it that historically accurate.

Or there are some buildings that were so modified over the years that they now currently look nothing like their original structure. For buildings like those, owners can take some creative license and work with an architect to design something new but that captures historical features prevalent in other still-existing buildings downtown or that recapture some of what may have been there 100 years back.

For some buildings, the process can simply be peeling off false facades or tack-ons pasted over the original structure to reveal what’s underneath and work to restore that, Bry said.

Original is great, but making modern improvements that look and feel historic work too.

“The grant doesn’t require to go back to anything, but what it does try to inspire is if you’re going to do something, let’s do something that you’re happy with that’s going to make an impact,” Bry said.

Preserving the downtown

Making improvements to the downtown is one thing. Keeping them is another.

Kendallville will be taking care of that as it works to form a historic preservation commission, an appointed panel that will work long-term to manage changes and upgrades in downtown to encourage owners to keep historic features in tact.

Handshoe and other have stressed the commission will not be on dictating what building owners can or can’t do, but instead will be a group that can review, vet and recommend improvements that would be historically appropriate.

Kendallville had proposed such an ordinance and commission about 10 years ago, with the effort being defeated when building owners lined up against it.

Sentiments have changed and, in previous meetings, most buildings owners appeared open to some regulation.

“That commission is not there to tell you what color to paint your building,” Handshoe said. “We’re not going to tell you anything. We’re going to make some recommendations if you want to do that.”

Kendallville City Council President Jim Dazey, who is already working with Councilman Regan Ford on a framework, echoed that sentiment, as the council will ultimately be the body that consider a preservation ordinance.

“The ordinance are not going to say you have to have this style of window, you have to paint your building this color,” Dazey said. “We will put those ordinances in place to provide that we can have a preservation commission.”

Handshoe also noted that, going forward, that commission will play a role in vetting projects aiming to utilize public money, such as future grants or the city’s ongoing 50/50 facade grants.

“We should never be giving out taxpayer money without some kind of connection to it. We should be asking you to be historically significant in some way,” Handshoe said.

Building owners will still have final control over their properties. Owners could still just make whatever changes they want if they choose to do so without consulting with or seeking funding from the city. City leaders hope that won’t happen, that owners will at least engage and attempt to work with historic preservation guidelines, although the preservation ordinance isn’t likely to outright ban certain types of modifications.

But the city’s not going to subsidize people to make changes detrimental to preservation goals.

“You’re not going to get money to do it wrong,” Johnson said.

Next steps

On Monday, building owners were asked to indicate on a sign-up sheet whether they’re at least initially interested in taking part in the program and would be willing to cover 15% of the cost.

Several building owners already were, with improvements in mind for their properties.

Those building owners can then meet to do some preliminary design work and fill out applications, which the city will then collect and, if needed, vet if there’s more work than money to accomplish it.

Handshoe said she was impressed with the full house of building owners at the chamber Monday night and took it as a good sign for participation in the grant program.

“I’m very encouraged by the turnout. It shows that people are interested in doing something to their building,” she said.

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