Downtown Le Mars may have a more historic look

Thursday, December 27, 2012
(Map courtesy city of Le Mars) A $500,000 grant could help up to 30 property owners improve the fašade of their buildings. The money is to be used in blight areas, which includes peeling paint, window and brick issues used to evaluate the downtown buildings in Le Mars, according to Mary Reynolds, Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce Main Street program manager.

Grant dollars could turn back the hands of time to restore or preserve a large number of downtown Le Mars buildings.

The projects would be the most extensive historic restoration in downtown Le Mars since the city's designation as a Main Street community 17 years ago.

Work is being considered in a six-block area of downtown Le Mars, along both sides of Plymouth Street and Central Avenue, according to Mary Reynolds, Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce Main Street program manager.

There are 83 buildings in the potential project area, but 21 of them are in good condition or have already been restored, she said.

The remaining 62 buildings are rated fair or poor.

The rating is based on paint that's peeling or second story windows that have been covered up, Reynolds explained.

A third area in the rating of buildings in the downtown blocks involved exterior brick.

The older brick in downtown buildings is a soft brick, Reynolds said.

Maintaining the brick with tuckpointing is needed on almost all of the buildings she said.

"Tuckpointing is a concrete-type substance between bricks that can deteriorate over time and, in our case, the bricks themselves are deteriorating so that would really save those older buildings," Reynolds said.

Le Mars has many buildings in the downtown dating to the 1800s, according to research for the recent listing of a large area of the downtown on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We're very fortunate to have them, but they need to be restored and many of them need repairs," Reynolds said.

Some local Main Street, city and historic preservation leaders consider a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to be the centerpiece of a new downtown Le Mars preservation project.

Dollars for a large grant for fašade work are from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The money is to be used in blight areas, which includes the peeling paint, window and brick issues used to evaluate the downtown buildings in Le Mars, according to Reynolds.

By combining $500,000 in CDBG fašade money with $250,000 from the city of Le Mars and $250,000 in repairs by building owners, a massive $1 million project is possible, Reynolds said.

"When you do master plan fašade work like this it happens in a short period of time and makes a dramatic change in your downtown," she explained.

Projects would range from in-depth building restoration to smaller projects, which might be in the range of $5,000-$10,000, she said.

The end of next month is the deadline for the city to apply for up to $500,000 in CBDG fašade money.

The Le Mars City Council will consider comments from the public on the proposal during a regular meeting at noon Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The public hearing is in the council chambers at city hall, 40 Central Avenue S.E.

The hearing is part of grant preparation underway on the city's behalf by Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Council (SIMPCO) staff.

Also underway are talks with downtown building owners, according to Reynolds.

People involved with 21 of the 62 downtown buildings were represented at a public meeting Dec. 11.

"We were very happy with that and most of those people have either gotten or they have letters of commitment laying on my desk to be picked up and signed," she said.

The signed letters indicate a building owner is interested in the possible grant project, Reynolds said.

The letters would be included with the grant application so they should be returned by the first week or two in January, the local Main Street manager said.

"We're working with those people whose 62 buildings meet that fair or poor category," Reynolds said. "We want as many people to be included as possible."

Assessments of property by local Main Street volunteers and staff and the Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission are available to building owners.

Anyone with questions about the potential grant may contact Reynolds by calling the Main Street office at the Chamber at 546-8821.

A building owner could see the cost of a restoration project reduced by 75 percent due to the CDBG and city funds, if approved, she said.

The city currently provides $25,000 a year for a Main Street fašade program using Local Option Sales Tax dollars.

A possible source of a local match for the CDBG is the current fašade money being combined into a lump sum to match 25 percent of the $500,000 grant.

If the grant is approved, a building owner does not need to repay the grant money or city match.

A easement on the front 18 inches of the owner's property is required for five to seven years.

"That doesn't mean they can't sell the building during that time -- they're giving the city an easement so we can control the project and make sure the work was done right," Reynolds said.

In addition to reducing the building owner's cost of a project by up to 75 percent, second floor windows could be uncovered and weather-proofed to develop new housing such as apartments and lofts, she said.

Those costs can be significant, she said.

"To do restoration work on the interior on the second floor was estimated at $100,000 for one downtown Le Mars business, Reynolds said. "Hopefully this would take some of the burden away from improving their property on the outside."

She's optimistic about grant dollars being awarded to Le Mars because an application through the city was encouraged by some state officials involved in the grant program or Main Street Iowa, she said.

"I think there is great potential we could be approved," Reynolds said.

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