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Developer praises tax-credit change for ushering in St. James church overhaul

A Milwaukee developer is crediting Wisconsin’s historic-tax-credit program for paving the way for his proposal to preserve a 150-year-old church by turning it into an event space.

The developer Josh Jeffers told members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission on Monday that his plans for St. James Episcopal Church, at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee, became shaky when the state approved a budget provision last year capping the amount of historic tax credits that developers could claim for a single project at $500,000. It wasn’t until April that the limit was raised —up to $3.5 million.

Jeffers said the change has made a big difference.

“With the cap now being expanded to $3.5 million, that makes a lot of things possible,” Jeffers said. “While that’s not the only reason we can make that work, it’s the primary driver.”

The raised cap means Jeffers will now be able to save not only St. James church but also a parish building standing nearby. Jeffers had initially intended to knock down the parish building, which dates to 1899. Now, though, he’ll be able to use it and the church as part of a plan to open a $6.5 million venue with two event spaces.

The congregation at St. James has tried for years to sell its building on West Wisconsin Avenue. With the pews becoming harder and harder to fill, the church held its final service there in November.

The higher cap on historic tax credits is not the only thing helping the project along. Jeffers said he plans to serve as the tax-credit investor in the property, an arrangement that will reduce legal fees and other costs. Investors in the project have also agreed to accept a lower-than-average return on investment, he said.

The overhauled church will have a catering and events business that will be used mainly for weddings. Engberg Anderson Architects is designing the project. Work on it is scheduled to begin this summer and wrap up in 2019.

“To have multiple venues during the peak season, it really helps the business model,” Jeffers said. “From the perspective of the existing building, we will be keeping it all in place.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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