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Our View: Renew tax credit program to keep saving our history

From the editorial: "The demise of the Astoria (Hotel in Duluth) ... serves as a reminder of the critical importance of Minnesota’s historic tax credit program."

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Contributed / Duluth artist Sam Nielson created this image of the latest businesses to occupy the former Hotel Astoria building. “I’m sketching to preserve. Preserve memories and the places that make our city on the hill so great,” she said.
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Positioned outside what originally was a two-story downtown Duluth hotel and which is now slated for demolition, members of the Duluth Preservation Alliance this weekend called on city officials to do anything they can to stop the bulldozers.

“I am no lawyer, but I believe it is within the city’s legal boundaries to deny the demolition permit, especially considering the building’s historic designation,” alliance Vice President Blake Romenesko said in a statement to the News Tribune Opinion page a day before he and others took to the sidewalk along East Superior Street outside the former Hotel Astoria. “The property owner is more than capable of using the building in a profitable means, such as they were most recently, plus developing the storefront on Michigan (Street), all the while maintaining the structural integrity of the building.”

How much the city can actually do to prevent the legal demolition of a privately owned structure is as unclear as it is debatable. And there seems the very real likelihood that the 115-year-old building — most recently home to an antique store, restaurant, and gift shop — is deteriorated beyond reasonable repair, as has been reported. Its owner, Hall Equities Group of California, a real estate investment and development company, is expected to replace the former 56-room hotel with surface parking, although another hotel at the site has been speculated as a possibility.

No matter what happens, the demise of the Astoria and its Loeb Block serves as a reminder of the critical importance of Minnesota’s historic tax credit program. The program was created in 2010 during the "Great Recession" to help put people to work while also saving important and historically significant buildings. Just in Duluth, the statewide redevelopment tool has helped repair or renovate at least 10 historic properties, effectively preserving rich pieces of our past.

Despite its success, time is running out on the program, however. Renewed twice by the state already, it is set to expire in June. To continue all the good it’s doing — especially when state historic tax credits are paired with federal historic tax credits, each able to cover up to 20% of a project’s costs — the Minnesota Legislature can extend the program once again.

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Better yet, lawmakers in St. Paul can go a step further and vote to make the tax credit permanent. It has more than proven its worth.

"This is such an effective tool," Erin Hanafin Berg, deputy director of Rethos, a St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reusing old buildings, said in a News Tribune editorial last month. "Preservation and revitalization can fulfill so many community needs. … We know that historic preservation has cultural benefits and economic benefits."

Rehabbing old buildings, rather than tearing them down and building new, uses less material and more labor, boosting local employment. In 2020, despite the pandemic, Minnesota’s historic tax credit led to $176.5 million worth of economic activity, including $49.8 million in wages paid to workers, as the News Tribune has reported. For every dollar Minnesota spends in the program, an impressive $9.52 in economic activity results.

Since 2011, the program has created more than 28,000 jobs in Minnesota and has pumped more than $5 billion into the state's economy, its supporters boast. As importantly, more than 170 historic buildings have been saved statewide.

While the owners of the Astoria haven’t tapped the tax credits, there’s no denying the structure’s historic significance to Duluth — even if its past is less than idyllic. Just two years after opening, it was already “a popular location for assignations between unmarried couples, often young people who found little opportunity for privacy in their parents’ homes or boarding houses,” according to Zenith City Press (zenithcity.com). In 1914, a drunk Duluthian shot his widowed sister-in-law in the head at the Astoria, killing her. He attempted to shoot himself, too, but was only grazed. For years, and despite warnings from authorities, unmarried couples continued to be arrested for disorderly conduct. Gambling, unlicensed liquor sales, and a melee in the pool room all also helped to cement the hotel’s disreputable character.

But the former hotel today is part of the nine-city-block Duluth Historic Arts and Theater District and deserves to be preserved as an important part of the city’s past, the preservation alliance argued.

It’s all the more reason why state historic tax credits need to continue to be there. The program can help head off the further erosion of our shared and proud pasts. As a bonus, historic preservation projects put Minnesotans to work and stimulate local economies.

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