Leahy Introduces Bill Aimed At Reducing Downtown Building Fires

…Initiative Modeled On Vermont Downtown Tax Credit

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. – Standing on the same block that had been stricken with two fires since 2000, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy Friday  told members of the St. Johnsbury community that he had introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to help prevent further tragedy.  The legislation, inspired by the community’s struggle with three major downtown fires, would incentivize the installation of fire sprinklers and elevators in downtown historic buildings.

Leahy’s bill, the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act, creates up to a $50,000 refundable federal tax credit for building owners who install either fire sprinklers or elevators in historic multi-use buildings located in historic downtowns.

“Since 2000, the federal government has invested more than $30 million into rebuilding burned down buildings in St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Hardwick, Enosburg, Springfield, and Wilmington,” said Leahy. “If the sprinkler and elevator credit I propose today had existed then, perhaps the federal government could have saved $29.5 million, the three souls we lost in St. Johnsbury might still be with us, and organizations like Housing Vermont and Rural Edge could focus on building new housing capacity instead of replacing old housing capacity.”

“After the Daniels Block fire devastated Main Street in 2000, RuralEdge successfully turned that catastrophe into a piece of redevelopment on Main Street,” said RuralEdge CEO Merten Bangemann-Johnson. “As responsible community developers, we had to step in, or the site could look exactly like the spot on Main Street that remains vacant after the 2009 fire.  But rebuilding after a fire is expensive and takes a lot of time. Upfront investments that preserve our original downtown buildings ensure their productive use and make for the best use of tax payer dollars.”

Vermont’s Downtown Tax Credit program competitively awards tax credits to owners of historic buildings in Vermont’s designated downtowns for rehabilitation work, including the installation of sprinklers and elevators.  In late July, Governor Peter Shumlin announced nearly $2 million in these credits, including for the construction or upgrading of 22 sprinkler systems and seven elevators. The program routinely receives many more requests for tax credits than the state can allocate.

“Our historic downtowns are at the core of who we are as Vermonters,” said Vermont Agency of Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller. “The state’s downtown tax credit program is making significant progress in ensuring our downtowns are in good shape, accessible and safe from devastating fires.  However, history shows that without a much larger investment, we will likely lose more of these buildings requiring an even larger investment on the back end.”

St. Johnsbury has suffered three major downtown fires since 2000:  the Daniels Block fire in 2000, the Main Street fire in 2009, and the Landry Block fire on Railroad Street in 2012. Leahy said after the Main Street fire, St. Johnsbury Chief Troy Ruggles thanked Leahy for his help rebuilding, but asked him to do something to prevent the fires from happening in the first place.

“After the Daniel’s Block fire, Senator Leahy helped this town rebuild, and I knew he would help us after the Main Street fire,” said Ruggles. “However, if more of our buildings were sprinkled, the reality is we would have to call on Senator Leahy less often, we’d nearly eliminate the risk of death due to fire in our downtown, and the men and women who serve the fire department would be safer. So I asked Senator Leahy what he could do to help me prevent these fires from happening in the first place. This tax credit is a pragmatic and thoughtful solution.”

In 2000, Leahy worked with the town to secure approximately $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help the town recover from the Daniels Block Fire.  He also secured a federal grant to help with the rebuilding of the Daniels Block.

“If Senator Leahy’s legislation had been law in 2000 and sprinklers had been in the Daniels Block, it would have saved the lives of three young men, the building and prevented the major disruption in the downtown area,” said St. Johnsbury Town Manager John Hall.  “And in 2009, maybe the buildings that housed the Convenient One and the St.  Johnsbury Pharmacy on Main Street would have taken advantage of the tax credit and we would not have the gaping cellar holes on our historic Main Street.”

Leahy is currently working with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Rural Edge and others to identify federal funding for the Main Street Fire site.

Leahy said he hopes the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act will be part of any discussions Congress undertakes to rewrite the nation’s tax code.

RELATED GRAPHIC: http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/firemaphdpaa

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What Vermonters Are Saying
About The Historic Downtown Preservation And Access Act

“The Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont support the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act because it provides a safer working environment for our members and all firefighters across the state of Vermont. Older buildings present some of the most difficult situations that firefighters encounter. Senator Leahy has always been a great advocate for public safety all across the country and providing a mechanism for adding sprinklers to historic buildings make an already dangerous profession that much safer. “
                                                                - Ben O’Brien, President, Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont

“The Vermont State Firefighters Association believes the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act will save lives and protect property.”

-Francis Buck, President Vermont State Firefighters Association

“Downtown tax credits for elevators and sprinklers are critical to protecting the safety and viability of buildings, businesses and citizens. This represents an important need for several downtown Springfield buildings today, and as with the Springfield Theatre fire, rebuilding becomes much more likely with the availability of these important resources.”
                                                                -Carol Lighthall, Springfield on the Move

"Thanks to the investment of volunteer hours and the collaboration of local and state organizations, Springfield was able to restore the Ellis Block not only to full use, but to an award-winning standard. However, not every community is fortunate enough to have this level of commitment. We hope that that Senator Leahy's bill might spare other downtowns from facing the tragedy of a historic building lost to fire."
                                                                -Jennifer Grant, Executive Director
                                                                Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce

“We wholeheartedly endorse the Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act. The State of Vermont’s tax credit program has been enormously successful, but even with the state credits, there are some owners who don’t believe that they can justify their share of the investment. The cost of sprinklers is a fraction of the cost of restoring a severely fire damaged building. This is a wise bill, and one that will reduce insurance premiums, protect historic properties, and save local, state and federal taxpayers money.”
                                                                -Steve McKenzie, Barre City Manager

"Thanks to the tremendous work of local firefighters, the 2010 fire in our main downtown commercial block spared the building from total destruction and no casualties were suffered. We are not always so fortunate. That's why sprinkling these historic structures is such good planning and it's such good public policy to incentivize building owners to install them. Thanks to the Vermont Downtown Tax Credit program, the owner of the 2010 fire stricken building was able to rebuild and install sprinklers, returning this beautiful historic building to full and productive service in our downtown. We hope this bill gives more people the opportunity to do so before disaster strikes!"
                                                                -Julie Iffland, Executive Director
                                                                Randolph Area Community Development Corporation

“Sustaining vibrant downtowns with a mix of housing and commercial activities is a key to the success of our towns and villages.  Senator Leahy’s initiative will provide needed resources so that downtown buildings can incorporate safety improvements,”
                                                                -Nancy Owens, President of Housing Vermont

“Our working downtowns are threatened by a variety of challenges – sprawl, deferred maintenance, changing consumer trends. But no threat looms larger than the all-too often downtown fire.  When Vermont’s downtowns lose a centuries old building to fire, we lose part of our history and our future. The Historic Downtown Preservation and Access Act tackles this very real threat head on.”

                -Paul Bruhn, Executive Director, Preservation Trust of Vermont

“The overall cost of rebuilding Hardwick's downtown was approximately $3.7 million.  The real cost to the community was much more if you consider the cost to the families that lost everything.  If you consider the lost business and the impact on the local economy, the cost to the community was significant.  The fire was a wound in the heart of the downtown that took several years to repair and the downtown will never be the same.   Sprinklers are a simple means to prevent these kinds of devastating fires.”
                                                                -Jon Jewett, Hardwick Town Manager


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