Here’s how to help a lot of people preserve properties

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Fact No. 1: At almost $20 million annually, Colorado’s historic preservation fund is by any measure the largest in the nation. Fueled by a voter-mandated 22 percent share of gaming taxes paid by casinos in Cripple Creek, Blackhawk and Central City, the fund has provided more than a billion dollars to preservation projects statewide since it was established in 1990.

Fact No. 2: Colorado Springs’ Westside contains nearly 2,000 structures built between 1861 and 1920, comprising one of the state’s largest contiguous historic neighborhoods. Despite the historic preservation fund’s apparently overflowing coffers, the neighborhood has received only two grants from the fund. One supported the renovation of the Carnegie Library, located on Pikes Peak Avenue just north of Bancroft Park, while the other helped fund the restoration of the former First Baptist Church a half-block away.

That’s because the preservation fund can only fund projects that are supported by nonprofit or public entities, making all but a handful of Westside properties ineligible for tax-funded largesse.

In practice, the majority of grants in Colorado Springs are reserved for those who could easily do without them.

Colorado College, with an endowment of more than a half-billion dollars, appears to be the largest El Paso County grant recipient. Between 1993 and 2009, the college raked in $1.6 million in grants, which helped fund the restoration of iconic college buildings such as Cutler Hall, Bemis and Arthur House (Edgeplain).

The fund also helped finance the restoration of the nearby First Congregational Church with 11 grants totaling $656,000.

It’s great to see these signature properties preserved and retained for the enjoyment of future generations, but you can argue that preserving and stabilizing a vast historic neighborhood might be just as important.

It’s easy to throw money at trophy buildings, but much harder to create programs that can make a real difference to people who live in, work in or own 100-year-old buildings.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible — just ask Dave Hughes, whose vision and tenacity led to the successful restoration of Old Colorado City.

By the late 1970s, half of the buildings in Old Colorado City were vacant. Only 20 businesses remained in the once-thriving commercial district. The city was planning to use federal funds to buy the buildings, raze them and offer the land to any company that would build a factory on the site.

Thanks to Hughes, former city development director Jim Ringe and former City Councilman Leon Young, a brilliantly business-friendly preservation plan was created and implemented.

Business and property owners banded together to form the Old Colorado City Development Company. Contracting with the city, the company was able to link federal community development block grant funds with Small Business Administration loan guarantees to capitalize 35 small business applicants in the heart of Old Colorado City.

Proceeds were used to purchase and renovate buildings and provide operating capital. The federal Economic Development Administration made infrastructure grants for building parking lots and other street improvements, and a business improvement district was formed.

Had the city’s original plan been executed, Old Colorado City’s business district would have disappeared from the earth. Nothing would now remain of the city’s grandiose plans but a long-abandoned widget factory, home to weeds, rattlesnakes and a few lonely pigeons.

What about the rest of the Westside? While local governments turn their attention to “No Man’s Land,” the scruffy stretch of Colorado Avenue between 31st Street and the Manitou Arch, city policy toward the remainder of the area is best described as one of benign neglect.

Since 2002, Westside activists led by Welling and Sallie Clark have struggled to establish a historic overlay zone for much of the area. Such designation would make private property owners eligible for state and federal renovation tax credits, and likely increase property values as well. Despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers and the completion of much preliminary work, the project is stalled.

“I think city staff just didn’t want it,” Sallie Clark said.

Former City Councilor Tim Leigh recently suggested a more radical approach.

“All of the property tax collectors in the area ought to declare a 10-year tax holiday for historic properties,” Leigh said. “Then property owners would partner with local banks for renovation loans, the area would explode, and having a prosperous Westside would support downtown. The property tax loss would be insignificant compared to the economic benefits of a revived neighborhood. It’s too simple — and that’s why it can never happen.”

As a Westside resident, I’m all for it. Low taxes are fine, but no taxes? Now that’s a plan.