Manatee County, cities want historic houses, buildings to stay up, stay put

mjohnson@bradenton.comFebruary 16, 2014 

MANATEE -- In the historic house market, things are moving. Really moving.

Eight years ago, a Palmetto mansion was briefly the most famous house in the world when 30 million people watched it get barged under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on its way to a new location in Ruskin. Today, more historic homes -- including the 117-year-old Beth Salem House in south Bradenton and the circa-1927 Strickland House in Palmetto's Palm View area -- are waiting for someone to save them from dates with the wrecking ball. That will require a move.

Every year, several historic homes and buildings in Manatee County find themselves in the way of

new development. In the past, these structures were often torn down, or moved out of town. Now, Manatee County and the cities of Palmetto and Bradenton are striving to hang on to their historic architecture. All three offer or are planning to offer incentives to property owners who are willing to rehab old or historic structures.

The incentives have grown out of the realization that new development is not the only way to increase a community's value. One statistic Manatee County used to push the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance last year showed that property values appreciate faster in historic districts than in non-historic districts in 12 of 18 case studies.

"It's also important to a community economically because it does not depress property values. In fact, it actually increases property values," said Cathy Slusser, director of Manatee County's Historical Resources.

The incentives have come too late for many buildings. In 1974, Bradenton suffered one of its greatest architectural losses when the Dixie Grand Hotel was torn down. More than three decades later, Palmetto and a worldwide television audience witnessed Lamb Manor -- one of the city's grand Victorian mansions -- float away on a barge.

Even though the Lamb move did preserve a historic home, Palmetto city officials see its departure from the city as a net loss to their architectural culture.

"We don't want another Lamb house," said Jeff Burton, director of the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency. "We don't want to lose another piece of the fabric of our history."

Palmetto has an aggressive incentive program intended to keep historic buildings in place and in use. The CRA spends its tax-generated revenues on redevelopment projects, including historic preservation.

This year, the CRA has budgeted about $48,000 for the rehab of the 98-year-old Olympic Theater. The building's owner is converting the former cinema into an art studio and private home. Up to $243,000 in CRA money is expected to go into the $1 million to $2 million project.

Incentives in Bradenton

Across the river, Bradenton is using its form-based development code to encourage house and building owners to either rehab old buildings, or to replace them with buildings that look like nearby historic structures. The city also gives out $6,000 grants to homeowners in its Village of the Arts district to upgrade the facades of its 1920s bungalows.

Tim Polk, the city's director of planning and community development, said the incentives help keep the "DNA of the city" intact. But building or home owners who want to move or demolish an old or historic structure to make room for new still can.

"We can't stop them from doing that," Polk said.

Ultimately, whether a historic house or building is saved is up to its owner, or a motivated buyer. George and Nancy Corbett moved the Lamb Manor in 2006 to prevent it from being demolished for a proposed condominium development.

George Corbett said that even though the house had been remodeled and was in good shape at its original location, the pressure of the housing market at the time wasn't going to save it from demolition.

"The building boom was huge," Corbett said.

In 2010, Manatee County had the Valentine House barged from north Palmetto to Robinson Preserve. The owners donated the structure so it could survive in another location.

Two more face demise

Two more Manatee historic homes still need saviors. The Strickland House is being offered for free by owner Cone Corporation to anyone with the wherewithal to move it. The house has to go to make room for an RV park.

The Beth Salem house, which is owned by Andy Reasoner of Whitfield, remains on the market.

Slusser said she hopes some historic home buffs come forward to keep these homes among the living.

"Just because it's old doesn't mean it isn't worth saving," she said.

The cost to move the homes is nearly impossible to pin down. Kim Brownie, the Fort Pierce-based house mover who transported the Lamb Mansion to Ruskin, said a house move can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $1 million.

Manatee County adopted its historic preservation ordinance last year. It is also considering implementing a historic preservation incentive that would exempt rehab improvements made to an historic house from property taxes for up to a decade.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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