I apologize in advance for the negativity in this article, but I personally prefer to get the bad news out of the way first and end on a good note.
2020 has been a crazy year, with what seems like a new crisis every month. With the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, the worst stock market point loss and second worst percentage loss in history, worldwide debate over pandemic restrictions, extreme wildfires in the western states, an unprecedented number of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic, domestic tensions over race and policing, and what may be perhaps the most polarized election in United States history, I think the one thing we can all agree on is that 2021 needs to hurry up and get here!
Thankfully, Mason County has spared the worst of it so far, though this doesn’t mean that we haven’t taken hits. As of this writing (on Thursday), Mason County has had 398 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 162 active cases, and 9 deaths. And in these already trying times, the loss of a loved one to cancer or a home to fire leaves an even deeper wound.
Now as far as history and historic preservation are concerned, it hasn’t been a horrible year, but it hasn’t necessarily been great either. The demolition of Locust Grove in Gallipolis Ferry, arson at the old Marietta Shipyard, and unfortunate fiery end of the Long Estate saw irreparable damage to our county’s history.
Downtown, the former TNT Café, Double D, and house at 907 Viand were finally demolished. Despite the necessity of these demolitions and the Society’s complete agreement regarding these particular buildings, this brings the total up to 32% of the downtown historic district demolished since it was established in 1984. This is compared to 28% at the end of 2019, and 23% at the end of 2018. Almost 10% in two years…
This is a clear and present threat to the continued existence of our cherished historic district, the foundation of everything that allows us to proudly welcome tourists to “Historic Point Pleasant.” At or around 33% (one more demolition), most states trigger a review of a historic district’s eligibility for the National Register, and our State Historic Preservation Office has expressed a willingness to begin doing this in West Virginia. If this were to happen Monday, I’m telling you as someone who holds an M.S. in historic preservation and loves our historic district, our district would get de-listed.
Aside from the demolitions, several of our buildings have been altered to the point that they are no longer considered historic under the National Register’s standards. Add to these the intrusions in the district (new construction), and our district is extremely close to the breaking point. The best-case scenario is that the better-preserved portions of our downtown would be relisted a new, smaller historic district, but we cannot pin our hopes on a possibility. We must act to prevent the worst-case scenario, complete delisting.
If it were de-listed, without the need for a historic landmark commission, the City would lose its Certified Local Government status and access to nearly $500,000 of annual block grant appropriations, funds that already provide $3,000/year to support Fort Randolph. Nonprofits and business owners would lose access to an additional $400,000 in annual historic preservation development grants, well over $1,000,000 in potential Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credits, and the tourism revenue associated with being a part of “Historic Point Pleasant.” Museums, which perform much better in historic downtowns than they do when surrounded by generic new development, would inevitably see lower visitation and revenue.
Those are just simple facts, folks. The National Register guidelines and laws regarding grants are clear, and hundreds of studies have proven that tourists are much more likely to visit a museum in a historic district because they can literally feel and experience the history. That value of that personal connection can’t be given a dollar amount. So, what do we do?
To counter the possibility of de-listing, we must protect what is left. In 2021, the Society reaffirms its commitment to preventing further demolition in our historic district by any means necessary. We will always support efforts to improve our downtown, including good development like the new Point Pleasant River Museum, and we’d like to offer workshops to help property owners apply for grants and tax credits to repair their historic buildings.
Our other option, to balance the scales, is to expand our downtown historic district to include buildings that were missed in 1984. The Lowe Hotel utility building, Polsley house and law office, former African-American Baptist Church, and old Central High School are just a few of the more important pieces of our history that come to mind.
It’s just simple math, folks. Say we add 20 buildings to our historic district. Now, instead of having lost 29 out of 92 listed historic buildings (32%), we’ll only have lost 29 out of 112, or 26%. In effect, we would be saving buildings to counter the effect of having lost so many.
Just a thought… Anyhow, next week, we’ll have some good news!
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at [email protected]