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St. Pete preservation group gets advice from Louisiana, Savannah experts

Preserve the 'Burg considers establishing a revolving fund to buy and save endangered historic properties

ST. PETERSBURG — Preserve the ‘Burg, which began as a scrappy band of preservationists more than 40 years ago and is credited with saving the Vinoy, landmarking the Detroit Hotel and the segregation-era Jennie Hall Pool, is contemplating its next step as it continues to evolve from its grassroots origins.

RELATED: After 40 years, a question: What would the city look like if St. Pete Preservation never existed?

The impetus is being fueled by a former City Council member’s offer to donate a 1910 building near downtown that has to make way for development.

“It sort of inspired us,” Monica Kile, Preserve the ‘Burg's executive director, told a small gathering Monday evening.

The Cornelius Snedeker House, in Savannah, Georgia. It was built around 1894 by a local lumberman to showcase his product.The house had been vacant for years, and had deteriorated. The Historic Savannah Foundation saved the house in 2008, before the housing market crash. [Historic Savannah Foundation]

They had come to learn what two nationally known preservationists from Louisiana and Georgia had to say about “revolving funds,” a financial strategy that is being used by preservation groups to save endangered properties.

The Cornelius Snedeker House, saved by the Historic Savannah Foundation. The organization held the house for almost five years, looking for a preservation-minded buyer. After several years, it was sold to a qualified buyer ready to begin work. It was restored between 2014 and 2017 and is once again a single family home. [Historic Savannah Foundation]

Daniel Carey, past president and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, said there are about 50 preservation organizations using revolving funds to save properties and neighborhoods.

“They are the most effective ones in the country,'' he said. "If you really want to be in the game, then you have to get involved in real estate.”

“It gives you street credibility in the field,” said Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.

“For us, this is a big step and we want to make sure we are doing everything right,” Preserve the 'Burg president Emily Elwyn said.

“About 10 years ago, we started to change how we were approaching preservation in the city,'' she said. "We didn’t want to be the group of no, coming before City Council and telling them, ‘You can’t do this.’ We have been really consciously reframing how we go about this. ... We started that through education, so we weren’t the only voice. We’ve tried to positively help neighborhoods and empower them to become historic districts.

“The idea is to use our money and use donations from folks to be able to purchase an incredibly endangered building or have an incredibly endangered building donated to us,'' she said. "The idea is not to hold on to these buildings, but to stabilize them, protect and find a new owner for them. And then, hopefully, you’ll break even and you can do the same thing again.”

A building that might have been saved had such a fund been in place was the 1939 waterfront house at 2420 Driftwood Road SE, in Driftwood, a new but disputed historic district. Demolition of the crumbling house began last week. Peter Belmont, vice president of Preserve the ‘Burg, said he didn’t think the house was in such poor shape that a person or organization would not have been able to restore it.

RELATED: City okays demolition of Driftwood house that many consider historic

Carey, who re-energized and re-capitalized the Savannah Historic Foundation’s revolving fund, said during an interview that he would encourage Preserve the ‘Burg to establish one.

“At some point, you really need to get in the game. ... We are encouraging Preserve the ‘Burg to get into the real estate game from a preservation angle. You can’t just sit back in the peanut gallery and lobby and promise,” he said. "I think they’re being strategic about this.”

Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, took before and after photographs of revolving fund projects he worked on in Galveston, Texas. This is the Green Revival House. Davis said organizations generally use revolving funds to save properties too intimidating for most people. By addressing some of the major issues, such as foundations, roofs and rotten structure, the project becomes more feasible for someone to purchase and rehabilitate. Buildings are sold with protective easements and the money from the sale is "revolved" back into the program to save more endangered buildings. [PICASA | Brian M. Davis]

Asked about the challenges St. Petersburg’s preservationists face during a time of intense development, Davis told the Tampa Bay Times that historic preservation “is economic development.”

“It’s really our job to assess what it is to work it and be creative in what that could be,'' he said. "I’m not a purist, saying that somebody has to live in a museum. Historic buildings are the fingerprint of a community.”

He said one of the best ways to bolster a revolving fund is through property donations and with anything that can be monetized.

The building at 856 Second Ave. N being offered by former Council member Jim Kennedy could play a role. But Preserve the 'Burg doesn’t yet have a site for the structure, so the organization is still mulling Kennedy’s offer, Kile said. The building by developer Perry Snell was probably the model home in the Lakeview subdivision built around Mirror Lake. An addition was made to the back later.

“We would just be salvaging the front part of the building, “she said.

Davis said his organization got seed money to start its revolving fund program from the 1772 Foundation, whose website says, “works to ensure the safe passage of our historic buildings and farmland to future generations.”

“There's no one way, there’s no formula that says what you must do,” Carey said. "In our case, the board members themselves ponied up their own money. "

RELATED: Preservations file lawsuit to prevent demolition of Pheil Hotel, National Bank buildings

Preserve the ‘Burg, formerly known as St. Petersburg Preservation, gets its operating funds from memberships, walking tours and its Movies in the Park program. Some seed money for a revolving fund could come from the $100,000 the organization received from an agreement to drop a lawsuit to save the Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank on the 400 Central Avenue block. The demolished buildings are set to be replaced with a 45-story condo tower and a 225-room hotel.