By Jerry Deschane
Give the governor and the Wisconsin Legislature an atta-boy for the new historic rehabilitation tax credit.
They got it right.
Nearly all of the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and the Assembly voted to support a special-session bill that would double Wisconsin’s 10 percent tax credit for historic building rehabilitation. Gov. Scott Walker included the legislation in his October special session on jobs.
Versions of the bill had been introduced earlier in the year by Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, and Rep. Chad Weininger, R-Green Bay. The bill is awaiting Walker’s signature.
The proposal recognizes what most developers have known for years: Renovating downtown properties is an intriguing idea, but it’s very expensive and very risky.
When the governor signs the bill into law, Wisconsin will join about 30 other states with rehabilitation tax credits in the 20 to 25 percent range. Similar legislation in Missouri resulted in a tripling of projects that were tackled in some of that state’s older communities.
Think about the potential for new property tax revenue, not to mention turning downtown eyesores into, “Cool! Let’s stop there”-type commercial buildings.
Critics have said the bill is a “giveaway” to developers. Those critics should sit down some time with a developer and a calculator.
Anyone who has done historic rehabilitation could show in about five minutes why the bill is necessary and why those empty warehouses in the critics’ districts still are empty.
Rehabilitation projects cost more than new construction in just about every way, including fire safety, public access and financing. And then there’s the risk of building something downtown with the hope that you can change the habits of customers who are used to driving to the mall.
The uncertainties of rehabilitating huge old buildings never end. To alter a line from Forrest Gump, renovation is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Except with an old factory, you probably will get asbestos, lead, mold, rot, PCBs or worse.
At least Gump got chocolates out of the deal.
Wisconsin’s building stock is, on average, older than that of many states in the Midwest. Our economic roots are in manufacturing, but changes in that marketplace have left a lot of our communities with intriguing, empty old buildings right in the center of town.
For years, those buildings have been home to rats, bats and pigeons. With the help of this legislation, those neighborhoods could change.