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Making Clay Center’s downtown a historic district has a lot of opportunity and economic benefits that many people may not be aware of.

For about a year, a local group of citizens have been working through the nominating process required for a good portion of the downtown to be considered by the state to be historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

The process started with a survey to determine what resources the downtown district has, according to Kristen Johnston, historic tax credit specialist for the Kansas Historical Society. The survey, which has been completed for Clay Center,  is uploaded to an online free database that anyone can access and contribute. The survey includes photos, age of building, quality of building and other information.

After collecting basic information, the Kansas Historic Preservation Office identifies the areas with the most historic integrity and the best concentration of historic buildings and collects additional information for nomination. This not only includes the history specific to each building, but in Clay Center’s case, how the downtown grew and developed.

Clay Center’s nomination for a historic district was completed in October. The next step is for it to go before the state review board in February. The proposal then goes before the National Parks Service in the spring, whose approval is needed before it goes onto the National Register.

Two buildings -- the Clay County Courthouse and the Clay Center Carnegie Library are already on the National Register and have benefited from it through tax credits on rehab projects. The Courthouse has replaced windows and rehabilitated the clock tower and exterior stone with these tax credits. The library used them to make ADA accessibility improvements and other upgrades.

The Register itself is a listing of places important to the history of our nation, so getting on the Register in a  sense would put Clay Center on the map. Being on the Register says that this downtown represents a piece of the nation’s history, which is also exciting.

Our Courthouse Square and the fact that we still have a vibrant downtown right around our courthouse is definitely something worth being noted.  

Buildings within the district that historically contributed would also be eligible for financial incentive programs, including historic tax credits and Heritage Trust Fund grants through the Kansas State Historical Society.

A tax credit is money you get from the government that pays your income tax liability for you. For example if you do a rehab project that gets $10,000 worth of credits, that pays your income tax liability for so many years until it runs out. Non-profit and other entities that don’t need those credits -- such as the Courthouse and the library, can sell those credits for cash to help pay for the rehab project itself.

Projects within a historic district can apply for a 25 percent state credit and a 20 percent federal credit -- which means you can get 45 percent of a historic rehab project’s cost coming back to you in the form of a tax credit.

Grants are also available to historic contributing businesses within a historic district. Heritage Trust Fund grants can provide up to 80 percent or up to $90,000 of a historic rehab project’s required funds.  However, these grants are highly competitive, as the Historical Society receives many more applications than what’s available in funding -- between 40 to 60 applicants a year when they can fund only 15 to 20, or four times the $1 million that’s available to give out.  

Grants are given based on greatest need, and the Historical Society tries to evenly distribute them geographically as best they can.

Being part of a historic district or taking advantage of tax credits or grants won’t tie property owners to any major restrictions.  There are rules to follow because they’d be getting government funding, but for the most part, property owners won’t notice a change when they become part of a designated historic district.

When building owners within a historic district apply for a permit to do work on their building through their city government, the state historic preservation office will review that permit and make a non-binding recommendation based on whether that work alters or destroys the historic significance of that building.

The recommendation rarely affects the permit, and often city councils will issue a permit despite the state saying that work might damage the historic significance of the district.

Mainly, the state’s role is making comments on a permit is to open up a conversation about what could be done on  rehab project, according to Johnston. Often that leads to a proposal that doesn’t damage the historic significance that the property owner didn’t even think of.

Our community has enjoyed and is thankful for the beautification of the courthouse exterior made possible by tax credits it received for being on the National Register. Other communities with a historic district have noticeably benefited from it. Imagine how much more could be done in Clay Center if we, too, had a historic district.  

You can view Clay Center’s pending nomination at www.KSHS.org and view a map of the district being considered at the end of the nomination form. Watch Eagle Communications video of Clay Center Now, which this submission is based upon, to learn more about what a historic district entails. The video can be viewed on the Chamber’s Facebook page or Eagle Communication’s Facebook page.

-- Submitted by the Clay Center Area Chamber of Commerce