Historic district guidelines established

Published 8:23 am Tuesday, February 3, 2015

AHOSKIE – After 38 years since the first Façade Grant Program Initiative was begun in downtown Ahoskie in 1977, and a consulting company came in at that time and actually produced proposed designs that helped begin downtown preservation, the current Town Council is hoping new guidelines can be established for future preservation through the Historic Commission.

At the January Council meeting, Historic Commission chair John Fritz made a presentation before Council of an Ahoskie Preservation Initiative.  He brought along Heather Wagner Slane of hmwPreservation, the Durham-based consultant who prepared design guidelines in the past and will assist with the establishment of guidelines for the town in addition to reviewing the guidelines already set forth by the state Historic Preservation Office.

Fritz began with a short historic overview showing the chronology of trying to institute the town’s Preservation Initiative from 1977 to the present day.  In 2005-06, when Fritz was appointed to chair the Historic District Commission and expansion documents were prepared, historic designation was given to the old Ahoskie High School on Academy Street in 2009; expansion began with a designation of the Holloman Avenue District (including the old Robert L. Vann School and the Atlantic District Fairgrounds and three or four of the teacher’s houses) in 2011; in 2012 more expansion was approved incorporating portions of Main, First, Church, and Academy Streets to Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, and maybe more.

“Historic preservation means that an individual who owns a historic building decides they are going to take the responsibility of providing architectural authenticity to the building,” Fritz said. “That’s an individual responsibility versus someone who decides they’re going to do whatever they want with the building and these are the two extremes.”

“Twelve years ago I stood in front of another city council and I made pretty much the same presentation,” he continued. “I was saying there has to be an initiative, a plan.  When we start working with downtown it has to start looking like it has its integrity, its history.”

Fritz suggests buildings within Ahoskie town limits that are more than 50 years old get should be added to the Historic District.

“The people in the city of Ahoskie are pretty terrific folks, a really cool bunch of people,” Fritz added. “But we have to get them excited about the things that need to take place downtown.”

“What we did was we started extracting pieces of guidelines that other towns were using and we sort of blended them into one document,” Fritz said. “And we discovered that it takes someone of knowledge, in this case, Heather, who can educate the community.”

Fritz indicated that he had worked with Town Manager Tony Hammond on preparing a packet on securing a Façade Grant and distributed it to qualified businesses downtown, but was disappointed that there had been no responses. He indicated the pair was also looking into the Certified Local Government program whereby a local, state, and federal partnership is created that promotes historic preservation at a grassroots level.

“We can apply for money that’s around preservation,” Fritz implored. “You’ve got to set a plan here that says if I want my downtown to look (a certain way), then I’ve got to keep my downtown maintained; not just the buildings, but also the streetscapes. There are a whole series of things we can accomplish that have nothing to do with restoring the fronts of these buildings.”

On the subject of tourism, Fritz says there are all sorts of things that the town can do as a community.

“The bike path idea is a wonderful idea,” he said. “The new mural on the JohnsonBuilding is part of the appreciation.  You can paint on any of the building that already have paint on them, but don’t touch the ones that don’t have paint on them, because we don’t want to destroy the integrity of the building by putting paint on it.”

Fritz says these are the things that are driving the economy of downtowns and are preserving the towns’ architectural integrity. He also said before much of this could be put into motion, there has to be a plan.

Slane then spoke before the council and sought to point out that there are things that work and things that don’t.

“The main driving force for Historic Districts is that they have a way of stabilizing property values because they have a tendency to show what’s more predictable in a certain spot and people are less concerned about changes that impact the value of their property,” Slane said. “There are over 100 Historic Districts in North Carolina alone and they mostly start as downtowns.”

Slane said the difference between the National Registry districts, which Ahoskie has now, compared to a local district is there is no regulatory component.

“Local Historic Districts have a set of guidelines on what they allow owners to do to their property and that’s how you get into stabilizing property values, even increasing them,” Slane explained.

She said in the Certified Local Government program that the federal government funds also include technical training assistance administered by the states.

“The main components of trying to do a local designation are defining where the boundaries are and what is the target area you wish to focus on, such as downtown,” Slane said. “Then I can assist with creating a series of design guidelines.”

Slane emphasized there are public community meetings, working with the Historic Commission, and working with the things the town would want regulated.

“If signage is an issue, if painting is an issue, whatever is important to you, that’s what we need to focus on for Ahoskie because you have different buildings than what they have in Raleigh,” she said. “Putting in the things that matter to you and taking out the things that don’t is a pretty good way to start. I can work with you on a boundary, but I certainly don’t want to tell you where a boundary should be.”

Historic Commission member Hal Daniels inquired about promoting the idea of a “downtown Village of Ahoskie” concept.

“That’s more of a tourism and marketing standpoint,” Slane replied, “unless it’s what you’re calling it from building documents. A village is actually smaller than Ahoskie.”

Fritz summed up the presentation with his belief that the Initiative is Economic Development, it’s Chamber of Commerce, and it’s working with building and business owners.

“We as a group of people have the ultimate responsibility of driving this thing,” he concluded. “I just don’t want to lose any more buildings downtown.”

Councilwoman Linda Blackburn wanted clarification on where the funds for the Initiative would fall in the town budget and Hammond replied they would come from the General Fund in the next fiscal year.

“It would be a budgeted item next year,” Hammond said.

Councilman C. David Stackhouse then made a motion to approve the request for establishing guidelines for the Ahoskie Preservation Initiative, seconded by Councilman Maurice Vann; and it was passed unanimously by the Town Council.