Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Fund preserves history

Newport's loans help owners save important sites

By Dave Niinemets
Enquirer contributor

NEWPORT - Dr. Thomas Powell wasn't sure where to turn when the earth in front of his Park Avenue home began to slide in the spring. The problem was compounded because he lives in one of the city's most historic structures: the Wiedemann mansion.

To the rescue came the city, recognizing the importance of maintaining its historic sites. The result is a new historic emergency loan program.

"I think it's a great program," said Dr. Powell. "I think it's terrific the city would do that to help residents alleviate problems with historic properties."

Made official by a commission vote in November, the program provides low-interest, one-year loans from the city for up to $75,000. The loans come from money acquired through the sale of the city water works. A committee reviews requests and decides if they qualify.

"We've got something in place if somebody has this type of situation arise," said City Manager Phil Ciafardini. He added that most historic preservation groups do not have the funds to help in emergency scenarios.

A pointed example of such an emergency was the massive fire this summer at the Odd Fellows Hall in Covington. Owners, lawyers, officials and preservationists had to scramble to revamp plans and figure out how to fund the safety measures necessary to shore up the burned-out building while decisions were made about whether to save it.

"It's something we hadn't thought about, but it makes a lot of sense to me," said Commissioner Beth Fennell. "Our historic assets are one of our top draws in the city."

The loan program is the first of many the city plans to begin with the water money. Proposals include programs for emergency repair loans for nonhistoric structures, loans for facade improvements in and around Monmouth Street and possibly loans to help low-income residents make repairs on homes.

"We are trying to create programs for needs or voids," said Mr. Ciafardini. "This is just the first of many programs we want to create."

Dr. Powell has owned and lived in the Wiedemann mansion for 21 years. He rehabilitated it himself and has never run into the problems that he had this year. He said many people who take on rehabilitation projects of historic buildings often put so much of their own money into it that pop-up problems can be difficult to fix.

This was especially true in his case because the slippage is not covered by homeowner insurance.

"You're kind of out there by yourself when something like this happens," he said. "I felt a certain amount of relief and comfort that there were people in the city administration who cared and were concerned."

Mr. Ciafardini said all historic buildings don't get saved. But his goal is to maintain as many as possible as an attraction for the city.

A streetscape plan from Third Street to 11th Street is also part of that strategy. He said once the Newport Promenade development is complete and upgrades are made to Monmouth Street, the city will have three distinct business districts including Newport on the Levee. He hopes the city's historic attractions will help draw people to those districts.

"The people are coming in and we want to maintain the historic integrity of the city," he said.

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