Historic district could draw businesses to downtown Mechanicsburg

Some property owners worry new designation could hurt local businesses.

A historic district in Mechanicsburg could bring new businesses and grant money to the area, village leaders believe, but some business owners said it won’t fix its problems.

The village council agreed this week to create a historic district on part of Main Street in downtown, covering from the post office to the Masonic Temple. More than 20 sites in Mechanicsburg are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including several on Main Street.

“There’s significant architectural and historical value to these buildings,” Mayor Greg Kimball said, “and we’re trying to keep them for the future.”

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The new rules include requirements for how the buildings look and are maintained or used, Village Zoning Inspector Dusty Hurst said. It also prevents owners from making certain changes, including removing cornices, boarding up windows or changing the first floor from business to residential.

“Essentially someone can’t buy a historic structure and then deface it,” Hurst said.

When owners want to make changes to a historic building, Kimball said they’ll have to submit plans to the planning commission for their approval first.

But some local business owners worry the new guidelines could be restrictive. Paul Kurtz owns Hemisphere Coffee Roasters on Main Street.

“I want the freedom if I own a building to fix it up and do what I want to do with it,” he said. “I hope they get it right. Because it could kill us.”

And Brad Jeckering, who owns a law practice downtown, worries it could be more expensive for property owners to make upgrades. Jeckering recently spent about $25,000 to $35,000 to renovate the building.

“Who knows what the cost of renovation would have been if this had been in place before we had done it,” he said.

The guidelines will allow some leeway for owners, Hurst said. Owners will have the choice of paint colors and materials for the most part, as long as materials are durable.

“It doesn’t really hinder materials that are used,” he said. “It’s just basically keeping the historical attributes of the building intact.”

If owners make changes that don’t meet the historic guidelines, Hurst said they could face zoning violation penalties, which could include fines of up to $100 a day and charges in Champaign County Municipal Court.

The historic district designation will also open up opportunities for the village to apply for grant money to make repairs, Kimball said. He hopes this will attract businesses to the downtown area.

Both Kurtz and Jeckering worry the historic district designation won’t fix what they see as the village’s biggest problem — vacant properties.

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The village should create incentives for new businesses, Kurtz said, instead of adding more regulations.

“Partnering with local business is a far more wise idea than making it more difficult for businesses to operate,” Jeckering said.

Many buildings downtown have the same owner, Kurtz said. The village should create incentives for him to sell his buildings, Kurtz said, instead of letting them sit empty.

“The real problem is empty buildings with an owner holding the town hostage,” he said.

Charles Ziegler owns about 50 properties in his name in Champaign County, according to Champaign County Treasurer Robin Edwards. Several of them are in downtown Mechanicsburg.

Ziegler said he’s put hundreds of thousands of dollars into every building he’s purchased to fix them up. All but three buildings in downtown Mechanicsburg currently have businesses in them, he said. Plus he said he would be willing to sell some properties.

“I’ve probably invested more than anyone else in the village,” he said.

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The village has criticized him, he said, because of a couple of vacant properties will go to sheriff’s sale soon. Ziegler is up to date on taxes on all buildings under his name in Champaign County, Edwards said.

“They’re good people and they’re trying hard,” Ziegler said of village leaders, “but they want to blame me for their problems.”

Ziegler also is listed as the agent of North Coast Properties of Champaign County LLC. The company owns five downtown properties, according to the treasurer. Two of those properties have about about $40,000 in delinquent taxes combined, 2 and 4 N. Main St., and will go to sheriff’s sale soon, according to Edwards.

Delinquent taxes totalling about $53,000 were paid by North Coast in December for the properties at 1 and 5 N. Main St.

Ziegler said he’s shown a commitment to investing in the community, purchased and renovated buildings in disrepair and brought many businesses to the area.

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“I’m the only one that’s putting my money where my mouth is,” he said.

The village’s goal isn’t to target Ziegler. It’s to maintain the appearance of downtown, prevent eyesores, Kimball said, and attract new business.

“Our only target is our downtown area and returning it to an attractive and economically feasible part of our community,” he said.

The village also plans to pass an ordinance that would require property owners to maintain buildings, Kimball said, and could prevent properties from sitting vacant.

The “demolition by neglect” ordinance would allow the village to enforce penalties on owners to prevent buildings from falling into disrepair, he said. It would cover the entire village.

Council members will hold a first reading on that ordinance Jan. 16 and will likely vote on it next month.

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