When You Think of Weiser, What Images Come to Mind?

A presentation to the Weiser City Council Monday, January 9th, 2023 by Tony Edmondson.

Dear Mayor and Councilmembers,

Though I’m here to report on your Historic Preservation Commission, I’d like to begin my presentation with some context by asking you a question.  When you think of Weiser or when someone asks you to describe it, what are the images which come to mind?  I’d wager it’s not McDonalds or the Sinclair gas station.  Likely it’s something uniquely Weiser.  Is it the people?  The natural features like rivers and mountains?  Are there certain landmarks, natural and built, which come to mind?  For example, what comes to mind if I say Italy, or narrow it down a bit to Paris or Rome?  What about Washington DC or even Leavenworth, Washington?  It doesn’t matter if it’s large or small.  One of the things I learned long ago from my involvement with the department of commerce and community development that you may have too, is what makes us unique are often the key components of community vitality.  

Historic preservation has a long association with community development.  Unlike the discipline of history which one often associates with events, documents, and ephemera contained within archives and museums, historic preservation focuses on the natural and built environment in our landscape which cannot usually be housed or are still in active use.  As such, they are subject to both environmental and manmade challenges.  If they are to be preserved, they must be protected.   If I say, “The City of Trees”, I assume most of us will associate that with Boise.  That didn’t happen by accident.  They’ve enacted ordinances to protect and cultivate that identity.  It’s been a huge tool in their community development portfolio.  It’s no different with historic preservation.  Sometimes we’ve been blessed with natural assets and sometimes we must create them, but we can lose them if we don’t value and protect them.  Tourism is Italy’s largest or second largest economic industry.  Their government has a large investment in protecting and promoting those resources.  And you won’t find a McDonalds in the Forum or St. Mark’s Square.  I know firsthand.  I’m going to leave data with you which might help you better understand the value historic preservation brings to a community.

As a discipline, historic preservation in our country came into its own with the passage of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Act in 1966.  It was none too soon.  By the 1970’s, cities across America were dealing with urban blight and the sprawl of suburbia which undermined the economic vitality of downtowns big and small.  Slums and decaying buildings were determined to be the problem and “Urban Renewal” their solution.  Grand scale demolition of core districts followed.  Some were left as empty lots for years.  Others were replaced with sterile modern boxes.  Boise was no exception.  And guess what?  It didn’t fix the problem.  Often it made things worse because the very uniqueness which gave a community its identity was lost.  To address this wholesale demolition of historic resources, the National Trust developed an economic restructuring strategy called the Mainstreet Program.  Soon, small and large communities alike were coming to understand there was value in those old buildings, especially if the challenges confronting the businesses within them was addressed.  There are plenty of communities across the country who have benefitted from this program which has evolved into the Mainstreet America program some of you are exploring presently.  I will say, we’ve attempted a modified version of the original Mainstreet program here in Weiser, but we weren’t up to the challenge to make it successful.  Having been active in community affairs at that time, I have my insights about why it failed.  There are things to be learned from that experience, but now is not the time to share them.

Courtesy Photo of the Hotel Washington

Within this context, historic preservation took root in Weiser early in 1983, when a fire swept through a couple of our downtown buildings.  Our central business district was already a shadow of its former self, particularly with the tragic loss of the Hotel Washington in the mid 1970’s.  Now we were about to lose the last of 3 corner turrets which once graced State Street.  Several of we Snake River Heritage Center board members were compelled into action.  We began negotiations with Al Lightfield, the owner of those buildings in hopes of avoiding a weedy lot at our primary business intersection.  However, some city officials were concerned about public safety associated with the now unreinforced second floor wall of that building.  I was told they didn’t want another burned out hulk left standing like the Hotel Washington just a few years earlier.  So before any structural report or engineering analysis could be completed, Mr. Lightfield was compelled to remove that second floor.  While we all lamented the loss, we were successful in convincing Mr. Lightfield to maintain what was left.  Out of this experience, the Weiser Architectural Preservation Committee was established as a standing committee of the museum.  

Good thing, as just two short years later, I got a call one evening from a preservation colleague in Payette, that UP had just demolished their depot and the wrecking ball was literally headed to Weiser the next day!  We wasted no time getting into action.  Next to the Hotel Washington now gone and the Pythian Castle, our depot was perhaps the most intact and recognizable historic building in our downtown.  Any future revitalization efforts would be greatly compromised if the anchor at the foot of our commercial district were to become another vacant, weedy lot.  We immediately engaged with UPRR officials to stave off demolition and began fundraising to underwrite the cost of a professionally developed reuse and site plan we presented to UP, which was subsequently implemented and still in use to this day.  Anyone who has dealt with UP will tell you it’s like dealing with another country.   It took two years of negotiations and just when we had an agreement in place, UP informed us they would not donate the building or enter into a long-term lease of the underlying property with the museum.  It seems they’d done so before with other well-intentioned organizations who subsequently disbanded or were unable to maintain the property which then became a liability for UP.  They would only transact this agreement with the City of Weiser.  We immediately began negotiations with city officials who saw no value in acquiring this building.  In fact, there was opposition among some to even considering it.  Quietly, we negotiated an agreement whereby the City would accept the donation of the building and enter into the lease, then quit claim deed it all over to our committee.  So, in 1987, the city completed the transaction with UP and within a year, quit claimed the building and lease to WAPC.  So began the long restoration path for this building which started with the construction of the security fence behind the building, again funded by WAPC.

That same year, WAPC approached the City of Weiser and Washington County to both enact historic preservation ordinances.  Once in place, we applied to become a “Certified Local Government” aka “CLG” that would enable us to apply for grant monies.  More about this in a minute.

By 1999, with a new city administration, a downtown revitalization project was conceived and implemented.  Not only was the Vendome Events Center part of this project, all of the street improvements and lighting were as well.  The depot was a source of $200K of those funds, obtained through a ISTEA grant.  Matched with other funding sources on this project, suddenly the building which had no value to the City, was now the conduit for part of our revitalization monies.

About this same time, the Weiser Lodge of the Knights of Pythias decided to disband but wanted to insure the preservation of their building.  They approached WAPC who graciously accepted their donation of the building.  By this time, the Museum was still struggling in the aftermath of the fire several years earlier.  Their future being uncertain, WAPC elected to legally separate its association with the museum and incorporated as an Idaho non-profit, becoming WAPC “Inc”.  

In about 2005, the Idaho Heritage Trust (an organization created by State Statute following the 1990 Centennial of statehood), relocated its offices to Weiser.  With their help, we were able to secure the last TEA-21 grant awarded in Idaho.  This $500K grant allowed us to complete the renovations to the depot you see today.  I think all would agree that our depot is certainly one of the most visible landmarks in our community, often the backdrop for family and community photos and gatherings.  WAPC continues to manage this property as well as the Pythian Castle.  Through the years, WAPC has sponsored numerous educational and other events there, tours and speakers, and played host to numerous functions, not the least of which was becoming the host site for the Farmers Market.  That too came with its challenges.  When the Market folks informed the City of their plans to close the street in front of the depot during market days, City officials denied their request.  When we explained this was private property owned by UP and leased by WAPC who had been paying the annual lease since 1987, City officials apparently realized they didn’t actually own this property!  They immediately terminated their no cost city water to our building and little park.  They also installed a separate electrical meter for their flag and holiday lighting, though WAPC had been paying all electric fees from the start.  Though we’ve appreciated our relationship with the city throughout the years, it’s not been without challenges.  While this is a vast oversimplification of 40 years of activity in our community, it brings me to the focus of my presentation tonight, which is the Historic Preservation Commission I previously referenced.

Whereas the Weiser Architectural Preservation Committee, Inc., is a private non-profit fundraising entity much like the Friends of the Hospital and other private organizations affiliated with sponsoring government entities, the Commission is the official government arm of historic preservation in Weiser.  I’ll bet some of you didn’t even know you had one.  This isn’t altogether surprising.   Weiser, Cambridge, and Washington County account for 3 of the 40 city and county Historic Preservation Commissions around the state which are qualified as “Certified Local Governments” and thereby eligible for preservation grant assistance through SHPO.  This funding comes to the states through the Department of the Interior and is allocated on a formula based on national register properties within each state.  In Idaho, the State Historical Society, the board on which I served as our district rep for 10 years, 3 as chairman, is the funding conduit through SHPO, the State Historic Preservation Office.  Back in 1987, the lion’s share of this money went to the handful of mostly big communities who had established commissions and become certified.  We and other smaller communities were encouraged to claim our share of this limited funding, which was the motivation behind us petitioning our sponsoring governments to create a commission.  Unfortunately, we like the ordinance which created us, have been somewhat invisible these past 35 years.  As I’ve considered how this happened, it probably started with where our ordinance was placed in local Code.  Unlike cities such as Boise, Nampa, and Caldwell who place their preservation commission ordinance under their “Board & Commissions” Title with their Planning and Zoning, Airport, and other commissions, Weiser placed ours under Title 4, “Building Regulations”!  We’re not alone.  The City of Payette placed theirs under Title 15, “Building & Construction”!  Interestingly, counties are even more curious.  Ada county lists their commission under Title 8, County Zoning, Chapter 7, Administration, Article D.  Canyon County lists theirs under Chapter 6, Building Regulations, Article #3, and Washington County under “Roads and Public Ways”!  Is it any wonder we’ve gotten lost?  It probably explains why for the past 35 years, I’ve often had to request our sponsoring boards to make reappointments as terms expire instead of them being handled automatically like P&Z, etc.  Speaking of which, I dropped off a reappointment request to the City in November but don’t recall ever hearing if they were made.  I’m dropping a copy off with some other documents tonight. 

Backing up a bit to that CLG grant funding a minute, you’ll recall it’s based on the number of National Register of historic properties in any given state.  So, what is a NR property?  An oversimplified example I often use is this.  Properties must be at least 50 years old and either possess unique architectural features or styles or be associated with an historic event.  We often assume it’s glorious mansions, but it could be an outhouse if George Washington plotted a battle in it during our war of independence.  More often however, these properties demonstrate unique architectural styles such as Queen Anne, Eastlake, Stick, Bungalow, Moderne, and more recently having passed the 50 year age criteria, it could even be a ranch style.  If a property appears to meet these qualifications, a nomination can be prepared and submitted to the state for review.  If they agree, it’s forwarded to the Feds who will again review and make a final determination.  Generally speaking, properties must retain 75% of their original exterior features.   So, if a trailer house door, plastic windows, plastic siding, or other materials have replaced original materials and not just covered them up, or historic features have been removed or altered, eligibility may be compromised.  I sort of liken it to the collector car hobby.  Take a 1957 Chevy that is still wearing its original factory items or has been restored to factory specs, vs one that has a Buick clip on the front, been lowered, chopped, or rodded.  Is it still a 1957 Chevy or does it have a new identity?    

At one time, NR status gave private property owners access to grant monies that could be used for restoration work, but those were defunded years ago.  Nowadays, there are tax credits for commercial property restored to secretary of interior standards.  For most of us, designation is a matter of pride.  Contrary to some beliefs, there are no restrictions placed on private NR properties.  We can remodel or even demolish them.  There are a handful of exceptions, most notably these.  

If a local jurisdiction decides to create a historic district, one in which the majority of properties in a designated area are either on the NR or meet a locally defined threshold, certain restrictions might be applied.  Generally, these are not things like paint colors, but more often fence styles, remodeling design choices, etc.  Usually these relate to ensuring the overall fabric of the district remains intact.  Usually this also results in higher property values since owners are protected from insensitive remodeling or changes that compromise the integrity of their neighborhoods.  The North End in Boise is a well-known example.  Presently, there are 29 properties on the national register in Washington County, most of them within the City of Weiser.  I should point out with pride, that a significant number of our properties were designed by Tourtelotte and Hummel, the premier architectural firm in Idaho who among other commissions, designed our statehouse and admin building at the U of I.  I’ve been told that outside of Boise, Weiser has the largest number of T&H designed properties in the state.  Years ago, the State nominated all T&H properties to the NR which met the standards for fabric integrity, on the basis of their association with that firm more than necessarily their architectural style.   

The other exception for restrictions on NR property or deemed eligible, is if they are government owned or on projects that involve Federal funding.  The Cove bridge project is one example which I’ll talk about in just a minute.

So, what has your commission been up to these past 35 years?  Well, I’d first invite you to read your ordinance to see what we’re responsible for doing.   You’ll see there are 5 commissioners, two of whom also sit on the County HPC.  We usually wear more than one hat however, since many of us are also members of WAPC.   Here’s a few highlights in the meantime.  Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, we completed a whole bunch of reconnaissance level surveys here in town.  Anything that looked old, we photographed and completed a survey document on which included a brief history and description of the property.  We’ve also nominated properties to the NR and completed restoration work on both the depot and Pythian Castle.  We’ve assisted with funding a new roof on the Institute pump house on the Galloway ditch, to name just a few.  All of these and a dozen or so more, were all done with CLG grants, the match for which amounting to more than $40K, were all provided by in kind services or outright cash raised by our non-profit arm, WAPC.  Though many larger communities not only provide Historic Preservation Commission staffing and grant match funding, our work hasn’t cost the city of Weiser one extra dime except for the staff time needed to add a grant line to your budget, signing appropriate paperwork, and then accepting the grant award and pass it through to WAPC who funded all project costs.  If you go to our library, you’ll find two whole shelves that contain not only the surveys and NR nominations, but all of our meeting minutes and agendas, news clippings, events, and related accomplishments.  I apologize that I’ve not presented to ya’ll more often, but it’s not for our lack of trying.  I’ll leave it at that and get to my purpose for presenting now.

Several years ago, the State Historic Preservation Office notified all CLG’s, that future grant requests would essentially be declined until a community enacts and adopts an Historic Preservation Plan.  What is a HPP you might ask?  It’s sort of like what the Comprehensive Plan is to the city or county planning commission.  It’s a vision statement that not only describes who we are, what our resources are, and what priorities we want to set for the future, but guidelines with goals and objectives for achieving those priorities.  Essentially, the SHPO wants to be sure that those limited grant dollars are not being invested helter-skelter in well meaning, but often fractionalized projects.  An HPP compels our community to prioritize our projects and provides SHPO insights to our vision with which we are seeking assistance.

These Plans can cost upwards of $20-30K to prepare.  Fortunately, several years ago, Washington County decided it was time to replace Cove bridge.  Since they will be using Federal dollars in that project and the bridge qualifies for NR status, Section 106 of the 1906 Antiquities Act. compels them to mitigate that loss through negotiation with the local entity.  Weiser and Washington County have had several of these mitigation negotiations through the years.  For example, when ITD replaced the highway 95 bridge 20 years ago, they were going to just give us a generic replacement like you see in Fruitland or Ontario and other places.  But through this mitigation process, WAPC and your commission negotiated with ITD for the historic railing and lighting which replicates the original, enhancements you now see on the bridge.  Some of you might have wondered how that happened.  It’s the gateway to our community and we proved it was warranted, which is why some of us are concerned about what development goes near that approach, but that’s another matter.  Another small bridge replacement on highway 95 south of town prompted another mitigation process.  We negotiated for the restoration of the stained-glass window in the Pythian Castle.  It was deteriorating but was further damaged by the compaction work done on East Idaho Street by the state a few years earlier.  That settlement came to about $10K.  So given the need to develop HPP’s for both the city and county, we used the Cove Bridge mitigation requirement to negotiate for both a city and county HPP, a survey of significant properties which have attained 50 years since previous surveys, and the creation and installation of an interpretive sign near the bridge site, for a total of $60K.  When it came time for signatories, an unfortunate misunderstanding prompted the city to decline participation.  We had to write them out of the project, leaving the county the sole beneficiary of this mitigation project.  That draft of the County Plan officially got underway in October 2021 with a completed Plan presented to and adopted by the Board this past November.  The property survey work is already underway, and fieldwork will begin in Spring.  The sign component will likely also be completed this year.  I’m leaving a copy of this Plan with you for review and can provide more if needed and here’s why.  It was a major amount of work for we commissioners as we strived to have large public input through the process.  I’m proud to report our public survey garnered even more responses than Canyon counties or even the City of Weiser’s recently completed Comp Plan.  

We’ll be back as your budget time approaches, seeking your approval on another CLG grant to write a HPP for the city so that we can continue grant funding in the future.  It’s estimated this Plan will cost in the neighborhood of $20k, half of which we’ll now have to match.  Whether WAPC feels we can afford that remains to be seen.  Perhaps there’ll be another mitigation project in the next year or two we can parlay into covering the entire costs.  

I’d like to close my presentation with a few thoughts to keep in mind.

The first is that while historic preservation is a passion for some of us, it’s but one of a number of economic and community development tools our community should not squander.  But this opportunity is fleeting.  Just as it takes ordinances and rules for a community to call itself the city of trees, it’s going to take more than a “historic Weiser” street flag.  We need rules and incentives to help guide property owners to making better choices in how they renovate their properties.  More historic properties are lost each year not by demolition or neglect, but by insensitive renovations that unknowing property owners undertake.  Often these outcomes undermine community resources and investment.  Conversely, there are modified building standards we could adopt that would save renovation costs. Our commission is prepared to work with both the Planning and Zoning commission and Council to come up with some design review and other standards that can be a win/win for everyone.  I’ve provided a couple of many examples of the economic benefits which come from well enacted preservation actions.

Secondly, if you’re not aware, cultural tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism, accounting for 40% of all tourism worldwide.  History and preservation fall into that category.  How many communities our size have a museum the size of ours, much less a historic campus?  For a number of years, we’ve hosted an annual railroad tour group at the depot.  Peggy Munson formerly of Weiser, has organized Boise group tours of our historic properties.  We get countless inquiries from near and far about our historic properties.  We host our own guided walking tours.  WAPC and the commission have developed tour brochures we’ve left with the Chamber of Commerce, but this is not enough.  I don’t attend Chamber meetings, but I doubt preservation ever pops up on their agenda.  I was excited when I heard your economic development folks were exploring the possibility of bringing another Mainstreet America program to Weiser and seeking funding to join that organization.  Several times I consulted with one of the leaders of that group about how we could assist but have never heard back.  This is a program conceived by the National Trust for historic preservation.  WAPC is the second oldest non-profit historic preservation organization in the state, and we don’t have a seat at that table much less an outreach.  Say nothing of the city and county both having historic preservation commissions?  Well, hopefully we’re invisible no more.  

I know we’re all busy and we should have been making more of an effort.  WAPC does have a website.   Our WAPC and commission meetings are all zoomed thanks to the County.  Our meetings are announced in the paper.  We can all do better.  We want to be a partner in our community development.  We’re all getting older.  Please take advantage of us before our clocks run out.     

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