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Minnesota Opinion: Demise of historic tax credit 'a tragedy'

From the editorial: "Lawmakers had the opportunity this session to extend the program or, better yet, to make it permanent. It has more than proven its worth. ... Instead, lawmakers did nothing."

The Old Central High School clocktower
Duluth's Historic Old Central High School is among at least 10 historic structures in Duluth saved thanks in part to the state's historic tax credit program.
2008 News Tribune file photo
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Even in a session filled with frustration and failure, in which the Minnesota Legislature fell short on getting much of anything done at all, this was shockingly unacceptable: The inaction of lawmakers allowed a successful state historic tax credit program to die — even though it had been responsible for helping save more than 170 historic buildings statewide since 2011, ... while also creating 28,000 jobs and pumping more than $5 billion into Minnesota’s economy.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
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All that good just gone, because lawmakers couldn’t find ways to work together and because they couldn’t do the job they were elected to do.

The program — a roaring, effective engine of economic development and historic preservation for more than a decade — expired last week on the final day of June.

“This is a tragedy for our state,” Meghan Elliott, a real estate developer, the founding principal of a Minneapolis building consultant, and the co-founder of the RevitalizeMN coalition said in a statement to the media. “Minnesota had one of the most effective and admired programs in the country. Today, 38 other states have versions of the Historic Tax Credit, to incentivize and support historic redevelopment. Minnesota is now in a minority, and will see developers, construction jobs, and economic growth migrate to states that offer this critical support.”

Minnesota's historic tax credit was created in 2010 during the "Great Recession" to help put people to work while also saving important and historically significant buildings, those places that preserve our past and tell our communities’ stories. State historic tax credits are often paired with federal historic tax credits, each covering up to 20% of a project's costs, making many projects feasible at all.

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Lawmakers had the opportunity this session to extend the program or, better yet, to make it permanent. It has more than proven its worth, returning nearly $10 for every $1 invested by the state. Instead, lawmakers did nothing.

As the RevitalizeMN coalition pointed out in its statement, dozens of projects around the state are now stalled or may be abandoned altogether without this essential redevelopment tool. ...

“This has been very disappointing … to see a program that has been so effective on so many fronts with so much support simply expire due to inaction,” Heidi Swank, executive director of Rethos, a St. Paul-based historic-preservation nonprofit and founding organization of the RevitalizeMN coalition, said in the statement. “The job loss, the opportunity to preserve community history, and the decrease of our economic competitiveness as a region — it is difficult to calculate the true cost.”

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The Minnesota Legislature can still save the state’s historic tax credit program. The prospects of a special session appear dim, however, and if the governor does call lawmakers back to the Capitol this summer, other pressing matters likely will take precedence, things like a bonding bill and what to do with the state’s record budget surplus.

The program also could be reinstated in the 2023 legislative session. It can be a high priority — a success for day one even.

But that would still mean a whole year lost without the program there to head off the further erosion of our shared and proud past, without the tax credits putting Minnesotans to work, and without its stimulation of local and state economies. That certainly is a “tragedy for our state.”

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board.

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