Two areas of the Billings and Laurel downtowns have been accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The register, which was created in 1966 under the National Park Service, is the official list of historic places in the United States that are deemed worthy of preservation.
The Laurel Downtown District and the Old Town Neighborhood District in Billings are now on the register.
The district in Laurel encompasses 70 buildings, roughly in a long rectangle along Main Street and First Street West between Wyoming and Fourth avenues, as well as a handful of buildings north of First Street between First and Second avenues.
In Billings, the Old Town district takes in 40 buildings, mostly along Minnesota Avenue and First Avenue South on the south side of the railroad tracks between 25th and 30th streets. It also includes some properties north of the tracks along Montana Avenue between 27th and 30th streets.
James Caniglia, the Laurel city planner, said the listing has three major benefits. Property owners will now be able to apply for federal historic tax credits to help pay for rehabilitating their buildings and signs advertising the historic district will be placed on the interstate.
Also, he said, property owners can buy aluminum signs that tell of the history and significance of their structures and note that they are on the historic register. The signs are sold for $35 to $65, about 10 percent of their actual cost, Caniglia said.
He said the designation is especially good news for Laurel because it meshes with a proposal to create a tax-increment financing district in the downtown area. If the proposal is approved by the City Council, Caniglia said, tax revenues flowing into the fund will be used to help pay for façade improvements to downtown buildings.
The Laurel Urban Renewal Agency is also providing technical assistance grants so property owners can work with architects, engineers and other professionals to figure out how best to make improvements to their buildings.
Development restrictions do not automatically result from being listed on the national register, Caniglia said, but people who use historic tax credits would have to meet certain renovation guidelines in order to receive them.
A historic district could adopt its own rules and development guidelines, he said, but “as it is now, there are no restrictions at all.”
Lora Mattox, a neighborhood planner with the city-county Planning Department in Billings, who also serves on the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board, said both districts received Preserve America grants in 2008, which were used to conduct surveys of all the buildings in the districts and to complete the nomination form sent to the National Park Service.
The Billings designation was the work of the Old Town Neighbors group, which incorporated in 2007. Members of the district also plan to undertake a streetscape project similar to the one that helped spur the redevelopment of Montana Avenue in the late 1990s. It would include new crosswalks, trees and other landscaping, some new sidewalks, buried utility lines and a changeover to diagonal parking.
The historic designation is the first for a district in Laurel. There is already one historic district in Billings, along Montana Avenue east of 27th Street. Residents of a portion of the North Elevation neighborhood are working to obtain recognition as the first historic residential district in town.