Heritage fund almost dry

November 18th/ 2013

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SAINT JOHN – The city’s small fund that doles out cash for heritage restoration projects is expected to be mostly wiped out by the time the board starts writing cheques, with eight months left in the year.

City hall typically subsidizes property owners who fix up their heritage buildings, but Common Council cut spending on that grant program by more than half, down to $90,000, in the 2012 budget.

The politicians have still not finalized the value of the grants to account for the spending cuts, but the heritage board has already received 31 applications.

The board says there would likely be little room left in the fund to pay out many more grants for the rest of the year. Should council cut the subsidies for big and small-scale projects in half, there would be room for just seven more projects. Another option would leave enough cash for just three.

Keith Brideau, who is redeveloping several historic buildings uptown, said he hadn’t applied for grants yet this year and, if he doesn’t get any, he may have to cut back on extra investments meant give those properties special appeal.

Brideau is restoring the former Hayward and Warwick property on Princess Street, where he plans to install a new entrance that will service the 28 or so apartments he expects to develop on the building’s upper floors. Without a grant for the façade, he may scale back on the grand scale of the doors or windows that he has envisioned for the project.

Added to this, he said, if his development firm has to spend another $10,000 because it didn’t receive a grant, the extra expense could hurt the bottom line and lower the project’s return on investment.

“Then all of a sudden (investors) start questioning, our returns aren’t as good as what we would like; we could get better returns in Alberta or Ontario,” suggested Brideau, co-founder and vice-president of Historica Developments, a real estate firm funded by private investors. “So all of a sudden we start to be less competitive.”

City councillor Donnie Snook said it was disheartening to dramatically cut heritage funding in the 2012 city budget, stressing the grant program increases property values and generates more tax revenues for city hall. He said his fellow politicians should scale back the value of the subsidies to stretch the available funds a little further and offer more grants to property owners.

“I hope in years to come we’re able to allocate the resources at budget time in order to make sure we are promoting the conservation of heritage properties,” said Snook, who is running for re-election in Ward 3.

After council scaled down funding for the grant program from $200,000 to $90,000, city staff suggested reforms that would reduce and, in one case, eliminate subsidies for restoration projects.

Property owners looking to carry out major renovations, such as masonry work, would be eligible for up to $7,500, rather than $10,000, under staff’s proposals. Roofing and new construction would no longer be eligible for funding, which would set aside more cash for other conservation work.

There would be no change to the subsidy for property owners who hire architects to design their restoration projects. But staff proposed eliminating grants for small-scale maintenance work, such as painting and signage, though a council majority recently rejected that reform. Instead, the politicians asked for a new set of recommendations that salvages subsidies for maintenance.

The heritage development board is pushing to bring the value of the subsidies lower so the available cash would support more projects. Chairman Leona Laracey estimates that setting the maximum grant for major renovations at $5,000, and lowering the top grant for maintenance to $500, would leave enough cash in the program to fund seven more projects.

The cost of restoring heritage properties is huge, which makes the grant program that much more critical, Brideau said. Installing a door at the new Peter Buckland art gallery at the corner of Canterbury and Duke Streets is expected to cost about $8,000, with all the fine finishings.

“If you don’t have any support at all, it will probably be less likely that you are going to want to invest more money on the exterior,” he said. “It’s going to cause people to question whether they want to put in that extra investment into these buildings.”

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