New day coming for Wadena's downtown commercial district?

If Wadena's downtown commercial district has the distinction of being added to the National Register of Historic Places in the future much of the credit will have to go to a route DenisGardner chose to follow four years ago.

Gardner was driving to his home in Deer River after being invited to Deer Creek to have a look at an old fire station. His route took him into Wadena. As he drove up Jefferson Street his historian's eye was captured by the town's commercial district, which runs for several blocks on Jefferson Street.

"I'm thinking Wadena might have a historic district here in terms of the buildings," Gardner said. "The buildings retained enough of their historic qualities that they could potentially be a national register historic district."

Gardner contacted his St. Paul office when he reached Deer River and asked if a study had ever been done in Wadena. The answer was "no." His next contact was with Lina Belar of the Wadena County Historical Society.

Gardner encouraged Belar to do a study of Wadena's commercial district. She applied for a grant to pay for the research and with it was able to hire Professional Historian Dan Hoisington to carry out the study. Hoisington and a student intern delved into a collection of material about downtown Wadena which had been compiled by Bob Zosel, who owned a hardware business in downtown Wadena and later became the town's historian. The researchers also had the use of pictures taken by Rex McDonald over a 50-year span of time.

It was in the fall of 2017 that the Minnesota Historic Preservation office conducted a review of the information Hoisington had gathered. Their conclusion was that Wadena appeared to be eligible for the national register pending further research. The news was turned over to Belar.

"Late last fall I got a letter from the state historic preservation office saying this area is potentially eligible for inclusion on the historic register, which is a big deal because most places don't have enough historic integrity of their buildings," Belar said.

Historic integrity can only be maintained by not significantly altering the appearance of buildings, according to Belar.

"You can't, for instance, take a cornice off," Belar said.

Gardner was back in Wadena last Wednesday as the special guest speaker at the semi-annual meeting of the Wadena County Historical Society.

To move forward from this point, additional work is needed to identify boundaries of the historic district.

"The benefit to that is that buildings in a National Register District that are contributing (those contributing to why a district is supposed to be important) and it's an income-producing building you can get tax credits to rehab your building," Gardner said. "I would guess that two-thirds of the buildings in Wadena, maybe even three-quarters of the buildings would be contributing."

Eligible projects can take advantage of a 20 percent federal tax credit and a 20 percent state tax credit.

Federal tax credits have been around since the 1970's according to Gardner. The state began offering tax credits in 2010.

"When that kicked in the number of tax credit projects climbed dramatically. It was a bigger financial incentive to rehabilitate your building to try and preserve this historic chapter."

Gardner spends most of his time in the Twin Cities even though he loves his Deer River home and would like working out of it. But the man who penned a history of last year's architectural effort to restore Minnesota's famous State Capitol Building knows his job is to seek out the historical treasures of the state.

Gardner said that one frustration for his office is that most of the tax credit projects they receive come from the Twin Cities and Duluth.

"We're really trying to reach out to some of the cities of Greater Minnesota to take advantage of this," Gardner said.

Gardner mentioned one of the latest additions to the National Register is the downtown section of the city of Chisholm on Minnesota's Iron Range, 176 miles north of the Twin Cities.

"Wadena, of course, was the commercial center for all of Wadena County for the vast majority of its history, which is why it's historically significant," Gardner said. "You have to have enough historic integrity there to reflect that time when it was the place to be. There are many towns that don't, but Wadena does."

Deep roots

According to Belar, many of the buildings in Wadena's downtown commercial district date back to the turn of the 20th Century. Three of Wadena's existing buildings are currently on the National Register—the Commercial Hotel, built circa 1885, the Wadena Fire and City Hall, built in 1912 and the Northern Pacific Passenger Depot, built in 1915.

Wadena's downtown commercial district received a boost when the Jefferson Highway, which is now known as U.S. Highway 71, came through the city.

"It was prompted mostly I think by the autoroute, that was a big deal," Belar said. "People in Wadena lobbied everybody they could to get that auto route and they were successful."

While the present project has significant ties to the past, Belar sees it also affording opportunities in the years ahead

"If you look into the future, you know things will change. They are already moving up from the Cities and they are already making four-lane highways," Belar said. "If Wadena becomes a destination, not just a place people go through I think that can have a real economic and social benefit."

As an example, Belar pointed out that by taking full advantage of government tax credits the owner of a property could save $40,000 of a $100,000 rehabilitation job.

Gardner said there is a small "catch" in the process.

"If someone in the downtown with a contributing building takes advantage of the tax credits there is a five-year recapture period, so what that means is that within the five years of your building being completed, being rehabilitated," Gardner said. "If you decide you are going to change your building all up again within that five years then the IRS is going to say 'hmm, you know we just gave you a lot of money to rehabilitate your building, you're going to have to give that back to us.'"

While Gardner's speaking engagement Wednesday evening at the Pizza Ranch was mainly informational, it did spark questions from the audience which Belar found encouraging.

"What we need at this point is a formal National Register nomination," Gardner said. "If Lina takes the lead on that, since she represents the Historical Society, she can get a Legacy grant to hire an architectural historian to do that formal National Register nomination."

By bhansel

Source, images, credits & more information: WadenaPJ