A key part of Faribault’s Journey to 2040 vision is a preservation of buildings across its downtown area, the second largest historic district in Minnesota.

Over the last several years, the city has made significant investments to help downtown property owners preserve and protect the historic buildings, which line Central Avenue and other downtown streets. These investments have culminated this year with the creation of a comprehensive exterior maintenance and fire inspection program.

The city in 2012 was forced to step in after the facade at 206 Central Ave. began to separate from the building, threatening pedestrian safety. The Faribault Housing and Redevelopment Authority was able to purchase the building and make the necessary repairs before a private developer renovated the interior, but the incident brought attention to the deteriorating state of many downtown buildings. For years, many downtown building owners had deferred important maintenance costs, a problem which became worse amid the Great Recession following the 2008 financial collapse.

In 2013, Faribault Main Street coordinator and now Councilor Royal Ross helped to secure a grant to fund building inspections from Minnesota Main Street, a nonprofit organization funded in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. At the time, Community Development Director Peter Waldock praised the grants as a crucial step toward improving the conditions of downtown buildings.

Many downtown business owners were eager to learn more about the condition of their properties. While funding was only adequate to perform four building inspections, 18 building owners applied for the grant. Noting the strong interest, the council approved an exterior maintenance inspection program in 2014 for buildings located within a block of Central Ave. N in downtown Faribault.

Strong foundation

In 2016, Faribault City Council launched the Downtown Rehabilitation and Exterior Improvement program to help building owners with the cost of crucial building maintenance. Councilors provided the program with an initial $300,000 in funding. At the time, council documents invoked the Community Vision 2040, a precursor to the current Journey to 2040 program. Community Vision 2040 was adopted in June 2015 and, according to the city, “provides a strong foundation for the Journey to 2040 plan.”

In the planning document, the city stated that “The (Downtown Rehabilitation and Exterior Improvement) program would have the goal of encouraging property owners to invest in their buildings and to help preserve and enhance economic activity in the downtown – as identified in Community Vision 2040.”

Under the Downtown Rehabilitation and Exterior Improvement program guidelines, the city provided deferred loans of up to 75% of certain building improvement projects. Loans were to be awarded on a first come, first served basis, with a maximum award of $15,000.

Loans would be forgiven after five years unless the building were to be sold within that time span, in which case the loan would need to be repaid in its entirety. Eligible projects included building and facade improvements as well as interior improvements related to HVAC systems, sprinkler systems and/or elevator installations.

In 2017, the City Council put another $200,000 program and turned it over to the city’s Economic Development Authority, which added an additional $200,000 in funding at the end of 2018. Approximately $65,000 remains in the program.

Earlier this month, the EDA made changes to the program in order to ensure the money is being used efficiently and as intended. The EDA’s changes included giving itself the power to approve or deny projects based on impact to the historic downtown, requiring a project impact statement to help distinguish between historic preservation and general maintenance, and limiting eligibility to buildings that were built before 1950 and are located on Central Avenue or immediate side streets.

Building safety

Concerns about interior building safety were brought to the forefront by the ongoing saga over the old Columbia Hall, located at 27 Third St. NW. The historic building once housed a public hall and stage that were often used for events, especially prior to the completion of the Faribault Opera House in 1893. Over the years, it was used in many ways, including as an armory, implement dealer, hardware store, restaurant/saloon and more recently a laundromat.

Columbia Hall’s interior was severely damaged by years of neglect, which caused numerous issues including the formation of a large hole in the building’s roof. According to a preliminary report from engineering firm ISG, it would cost nearly $3 million to bring the building back to usable shape.

Columbia Hall’s exterior, on the other hand, remained relatively sound, despite some water damage. As a result, the city didn’t have grounds to enter the building and compel the owners to fix up the building. Only if the owner had applied for a rental license or building permit would an interior building inspection have been required.

Ultimately, the City Council purchased the Columbia Hall and the neighboring building at 225 First Ave NW, in hopes of demolishing the buildings and putting up a parking lot in their place. The Historic Preservation Commission initially blocked the proposal, citing the building’s historical value. In an attempt to persuade the commission to approve a demolition permit, the council commissioned the ISG report.

Earlier this year, City Council approved another exterior maintenance program and coupled it with a fire inspection program. In May, officials began inspecting buildings located within a block of Central Ave, N in downtown.

If the inspection turns up building and/or fire code violations, the city generally gives property owners 30 days to fix the issues before conducting a re-inspection. While the program was approved by the council, Councilor Jonathan Wood, who owns his own construction company, urged the city to consider giving property owners a more time to fix violations.

Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that the city recognizes that it can often be difficult to find qualified contractors to fix buildings within such a short time period. She said the city tries to be as accommodating and flexible as possible with building owner.

Kuennen added that while the program is currently limited to the downtown historic district, city officials plan to eventually extend it to buildings in the rest of the city. With the addition of a dedicated Fire & Property Maintenance Inspector position, the city now has the resources to enforce property maintenance requirements on more than a by-complaint basis.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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