What do Lewistown’s Judith Theatre, Livingston’s Wilmont Building and Billings’ Montana Power Building have in common?
They are among 62 historic preservation projects completed since 1990 with federal tax incentives.
From Kalispell to Helena, Fort Benton and Butte, historic preservation projects have revitalized landmarks and saved cherished pieces of local history.
However, a new report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out that these projects do more than preserve unique local culture; they stimulate local economies.
According to the report released this month, over the past 30 years, historic tax credits have leveraged nearly $106 billion in private investment and created 2.3 million jobs while renovating more than 38,700 buildings nationwide.
In Montana, the 62 projects completed in the past 23 years totaled $59 million and used $9.7 million in federal historic tax credits. These projects created 536 construction jobs and 604 permanent jobs.
One of the largest and most recent projects is the Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings. A partnership between the city of Billings and private developers restored the 1907 opera house and its rare architectural details. The project reopened a 750-seat theater for performing arts, created 14 apartments and seven retail spaces — six of which are already occupied by small businesses.
The $2.89 million project involved funds from the downtown tax increment district and from Babcock LLC. The project received a federal tax credit of $480,854.
“It was significant,” Kim Olsen said of the credit. “It’s a major part of why we’re doing the project.” Architects Kim Olsen and her husband, Don, are principals in Babcock LLC, along with Kay Foster and Mike Mathew. The Olsens’ firm, O2 Architects, designed the Babcock project. In 2017, the theater portion of the building will be transferred to city ownership, while the private partners will retain the retail and apartment space.
In Lewistown, the 1914 Judith Theatre is the only theater in the county and recently employed 28 people.
In Livingston, renovation of the 1913 Truex/Wilmont building created apartments in 2009 when the community had a critical housing shortage. It also created office and retail space.
The Bozeman Carnegie Library was renovated in 1999, in part with a tax credit.
At least 10 downtown Billings landmarks have been revived with historic tax credits, and more will be if the credit is preserved.
In an introduction to the Montana report, Chere Jiusto, director for the Montana Preservation Alliance, noted that Montana enacted a state credit in 1997 that, combined with the federal credit, creates a 25 percent tax incentive for property owners.
The historic tax credit is “an irreplaceable tool for creating jobs, building healthy communities, and, most especially, preserving heritage in towns and communities throughout Montana,” Jiusto wrote.
Before historic tax credits were available, “a lot of people thought old buildings were just old buildings,” Kim Olsen said. “It has changed developers’ minds on what they want to do in areas with existing infrastructure.”
The tax credit “preserves buildings that give character to a place,” Olsen said.
With tax reform on the national agenda, every federal credit may be scrutinized. With the historic credit, lawmakers should weigh the economic benefits as well as the cultural rewards. Montanans are richer for investments in their past that build up their future.