But that may be changing.
In the past year, historic preservation projects in Macon outnumbered efforts of every other city in the state.
Of the 112 historic preservation applications and certifications filed with the state in the fiscal year that ended in July, Macon was involved with more than a third of them with 42 applications. Savannah, which previously led the state in filings, had 22 during the same time frame.
Carole Moore, the state’s tax incentives and grants coordinator for historic preservation, credited the numbers to innovative use of the tax credits by the Historic Macon Foundation and its staff. Historic Macon works to preserve houses and commercial properties in Macon’s 14 historic tax districts.
“For a long time, Savannah had been the leader because they have so much going on,” Moore said. “But Josh Rogers has been really proactive in pushing (the historic tax credits) program. Historic Macon will buy properties and resell them, and they have a revolving loan fund. One of the reasons (Macon) has surged to the top is that they’ve done a good job promoting the program.”
Rogers, executive director of Historic Macon, said that with nearly 6,000 historic buildings across Macon’s 14 districts, Historic Macon’s numbers are only the tip of the iceberg of the potential for preservation.
He didn’t realize how far Macon had moved ahead of the rest of Georgia until the state issued a report in August.
“You don’t often get the chance to take a statewide view,” he said. “I think it’s awesome validation that we’ve been more productive than any other Georgia community. (Macon) is a special and unusual place. Other (communities) try to resist demolitions ... but we try to keep what we’ve got and be proud of it.”
Buying a circa-1880 house on Orange Street would never have been possible for Andy and Heather Moore without Georgia’s historic tax incentives.
“Certainly, we would not have a quality home without the tax credit,” she said. “It’s actually cheaper (per month) than my first apartment in Macon, which was one bedroom. It illustrates the kind of impact (the incentives) can make.”
The Moores were unfamiliar with the tax incentive program, so they paid Historic Macon to complete the process for them, which included handling the property’s rehabilitation that began in the summer of 2010.
“It needed $300,000 to $400,000 in work,” Heather Moore said of the gray, three-story, late Victorian house. “It was definitely uninhabitable. It needed a new roof, new electrical, plumbing. It needed cosmetic work with the floors. It was pretty much a complete overhaul. What a great resource Historic Macon was for us. Without them, we’d never be in the home we’re in now.”
Heather Moore said for their home, a tax-credit eligible investment of about $300,000 was required.
The investment yielded $76,000 in state tax credits. She said the state tax credits, coupled with a property tax freeze program, resulted in about $100,000 in total tax incentives.
“For us and many others in Macon historic districts, the tax credit program did its job,” she said. “It incentivized us to consider a property that needed substantial work, provided a financial package to make an intimidating project affordable, and through the rehabilitation work of Historic Macon, transformed a neighborhood eyesore into an asset.”
In order for a project to qualify for incentives, Rogers said the property must be listed on the National Register. Homeowners must invest at least $25,000 over two years, while owners of commercial properties must invest the full value of the building over two years.
The investors must then comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to ensure proper treatment of the property.
Tax incentives can freeze an owner’s property tax assessment for eight-and-a-half years, reimburse 25 percent of the improvement costs through a state income tax credit, and reimburse another 20 percent of the improvement costs through a federal tax credit.
Rogers used a $130,000 home rehabbed through the process as an example. Normally, it would cost the owner about $1,000 per month in expenses. With the incentives program, it costs about $500 per month — less than the average cost of renting an apartment in Macon.
While some developers struggled during the recent recession, Bryan Nichols was able to thrive because of the tax incentives.
Nichols has been able to refurbish several loft units downtown as well as convert an abandoned storefront into the Taste and See coffee house on Poplar Street. Without the incentives, Nichols said he likely would have focused most of his development in north Macon.
“If you invest in something, you get something in return,” he said. “You’re preserving (a historic) building and getting something in return for doing it.”
During the height of the recession, Nichols became acquainted with Rogers and the tax incentives for a project he was working on at Fifth and Poplar streets — converting an old warehouse into lofts.
“Since then, we’ve done a lot of dilapidated houses and Taste and See,” he said. “We’re able to utilize the tax credits there. ... We’ve been able to recoup so much money that really, it’s a no-brainer.”
Nichols said he bought the property he turned into Taste and See for $226,000 and put in $500,000 of improvements. Thanks to the historic and other tax incentives, the savings over eight years are enough to cover nearly the entire building’s purchase cost.
“You get to recoup your money a whole lot quicker,” Nichols said.
According to a Georgia Tech study published in February, Georgia receives more than a triple return for the amount it invests in the tax incentive program.
The study said Georgia collects $3.49 in new tax collections for every $1 it invests in the program.
In addition, the construction and operations of the projects supported by the Georgia Historic Tax Credit will create a total of $313 million in new tax revenue for the state and will generate substantial local tax revenue through property taxes, retail and hotel operations. The projects will create an estimated 10,911 jobs through construction work and 4,990 permanent jobs in the state, which will lead to $541.7 million in income for Georgia residents during the construction phase, the study found.
“In analyzing the present value of the entire life of all projects, the return to the state of Georgia is remarkable,” according to the study. “The $89.65 million invested by the state (since 2009) will produce a total state tax revenue increase of $449.8 million over the entire life of the program.”
That’s why state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, co-sponsored legislation earlier this year — the Georgia Prosperity Through Preservation Bill — to increase the cap of $300,000 in tax credits for commercial properties to $5 million. Though his bill died in committee, Peake said he and other legislators have been working with Gov. Nathan Deal’s staff to try to get a new bill introduced during the 2014 legislative session.
“(The tax credit) has been exactly what we’ve hoped for — to spur economic development,” Peake said. “With any tax credit, you hope that it pays for itself with new jobs and new investments in the community. In addition to the economic benefits of jobs and new growth, if you can eliminate areas that are eyesores and reinvest in the community. That’s an additional benefit.”
The original cap was $5,000, which was raised to $100,000 for a house and $300,000 for a commercial property in 2009. Those increases gave a huge boost to historic preservation projects in Georgia.
If the current cap is raised to $5 million, Peake said he hopes the effect will be to lure even more investors to similar projects, including investors from outside Georgia.
“We’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of business people who have a keen interest in historic preservation,” he said. “You also have a lot of folks who are willing to take risks and are being rewarded for that. Success breeds success.”
Peake said many of the state’s tax incentive programs, such as the state’s successful incentives for filmmakers, have come under scrutiny of late despite their success. Peake said the goal of increasing the cap to $5 million for the historic tax credit would be to attack major projects instead of doing the work piecemeal.
“You may have a huge developer that will take over whole blocks,” he said. “(The increase) may be enough to convince a developer to do a whole historic area.”
Peake said legislators are working with the Governor’s Competitive Initiative to create a large bill that would cover several tax incentives, including historic ones.
“We’re getting significant return on the dollars, and we don’t need to play favorites with different initiatives,” he said. “If we can prove there’s a successful model for an investor, we’d be crazy not to do that.”
Currently, Historic Macon is involved in 43 projects that use historic tax credits that are in various stages of development.
Some of the Macon projects that have used tax credits have received statewide recognition. In April, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation recognized two significant Macon projects. Local architect Shannon Fickling won an Excellence in Innovation Award for her restoration work on the Hall House, originally designed by Neel Reid. Additionally, Al and Kay Gerhardt also won an Excellence in Innovation Award for their restoration of the old Telephone Exchange building on Second and Poplar streets. The building now features ground-floor businesses and upper-level lofts.
Macon’s preservation efforts over the past few decades beyond those of Historic Macon have had a significant cultural and economic impact, especially in downtown Macon.
Chris Floore, spokesman for Mayor Robert Reichert, said finding ways to preserve older structures helps address the city’s blight.
“It’s obvious from the amount of rehabilitation projects in Macon there is an interest to invest in our historic architecture and neighborhoods, which helps address some of the blight issues we face,” Floore said. “We have some great housing stock throughout Macon-Bibb, and with the help of Historic Macon, that stock can be used to help turn neighborhoods around and preserve our history.”
Jim Barfield, a local writer and preservationist, said the community has been active in historic preservation for the past 35 years.
“We’ve had great success in preserving buildings and whole neighborhoods,” he said. “The people who live in historic buildings and neighborhoods understand the importance. But the majority of people who live here don’t understand the economic and cultural benefits from having these places. We have a huge inventory of fine architecture. It’s something that gives our town character. There are towns in Georgia, where they haven’t preserved these buildings, that don’t have (that character).”
Towns with historic buildings can lure tourists, Barfield said. In addition, preservation efforts reuse old buildings rather than tearing them down.
“One of the green things to do is to recycle buildings,” he said.
Barfield said it’s important for officials in the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government to be aware of the concept of new urbanism: It’s not effective in the long term to keep developing farther and farther away from downtown without fixing the problems at the city’s core.
“When you have vacant and dilapidated housing, you can’t keep pushing them out,” he said. “If you have a rotten core, it will cause the whole system to be corrupted.”
Rogers noted that much of Historic Macon’s success wouldn’t be possible without partnerships with the city, Mercer University, the Macon Housing Authority, NewTown Macon, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Peyton Anderson Foundation.
“I don’t think I’ve met any colleague anywhere in the country who has the kind of partnerships we have here in Macon,” he said. “A lot of times, the nonprofits here will really help each other out. ... Preservation is a team sport, so this is validation for our partners as well. They’ve been critical. We wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”