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March 13, 2012

A ‘franchise tag’ for housing

Last week, Logansport housing made headlines for different but indirectly related reasons.

The Logansport Historic Preservation Commission effectively “undesignated” some properties that had previously been designated as historic. Removing the tag  from one home along the boulevard made sense because it’s in an area of the city where older homes will likely stand the test of time and urban development. The commission stood firm on other cases in older parts of the city with the exception of one North Street property.

Meanwhile, the city once again called for property owners to take care of their older properties, an appeal that’s been made by administrations of both parties several times over the years.

The Logansport Board of Public Works and Safety, the code enforcement officer and the building commissioner have a never-ending task in ensuring the integrity of buildings, many of which are not owner-occupied. Some of these have fallen between the cracks of ownership and have not been occupied for years.

What’s significant to note here is that last week also was the 25th anniversary of something we sometimes take for granted – the designation of Logansport’s only national historic landmark, the Dentzel carousel in Riverside Park. Since that designation was made, more than $1 million was raised to renovate the carousel and build a new all-weather home in the McHale Community Complex.

But just blocks from the carousel are various aging properties that qualify for the same National Register of Historic Places the carousel has for years. Unfortunately, many of these structures don’t have owners willing to pursue historic protection through a designation by the city.

This designation is similar to the “franchise tag” the National Football League teams are able to place on a certain player as the key player to their franchise they don’t want to lose. Peyton Manning has had that designation before, and it’s somewhat ironic that his departure from the Colts happened last week as well.

Not every old house is historic, and frankly there are plenty of old houses in Logansport that would look better after a wrecking ball visited them.

When previous local officials sought the publication of “The Interim Report on Cass County” published in the early 1980s, they secured professional expertise to determine what properties were really historic, complementary to the historic neighborhoods we have or simply not historic in any sense. If anything, that same report could be used as a guide for the local commission today to work with local property owners in designating many properties that haven’t been identified as historic to Logansport.

In a sense, that’s our franchise tag: Identifying homes that for one reason or another are historically meaningful to Logansport.

Historic preservation is indirectly related to investment in other properties because historic preservation adds value to structures, neighborhoods and ultimately the local tax base. The Bankers Row Neighborhood on Eel River Avenue 30 years ago was a shambles in many respects. Private investment and some cooperation from the city in adding sidewalks and lighting have helped improve that neighborhood for mixed business and residential use, which will probably be augmented by the expansion of the All Saints Parish campus and downtown revitalization.

One property within walking distance of Bankers Row is The People’s Winery. When historic preservation efforts began on Bankers Row in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the building that now houses the winery was closed down as the former site of The Salvation Army. It remained unused for decades until it was restored and the winery opened its doors. The winery, which once housed a bank when it originally opened in the 1800s, is now one of the most attractive properties in downtown Logansport, and it’s also historic.

When the Cass County Historic Preservation Foundation was created as a nonprofit organization, it had a goal of promoting the concept of historic preservation through awareness and community support. One of the problems facing historic preservation, however, is that too few properties are designated and city administrations throughout the years have failed to commit adequate resources to properties that magnify our heritage in a way that shows off the city in a positive light. Logansport is not unique in that respect, but many cities have found ways to pull it off.

Owning an historic home or structure and any other kind of structure is like the difference between owning a pure-bred dog and owning a mixed breed. There are dog owners who want both types of dog, and there are property owners who want both types of properties.

Without the historic designation for more structures in Logansport, dozens of historic structures will simply age and decay like any other building. It’s time for us all to take a closer look at buildings that should be preserved and those that will merely be reserved for the wrecking ball.

One final thought is that sometimes we all look at buildings that could use some tender, loving care and think that time is not on their side. Yet when the carousel was designated a National Historic Landmark 25 years ago this week, two other properties that received the same designation were Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and the historic southern Indiana hotel in West Baden Springs. Time wasn’t on the side of either of those buildings either, but history was.

In a sense, the United States has long been a country that’s succeeded because it was on the right side of history. For Logansport and other cities to succeed in preserving part of that national heritage, we have to designate historic properties and put long-term investment on their side — and ours.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

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