Historic District commissioners talk future plans

Members of the El Dorado Historic District Commission had planned Thursday to watch a video of a presenter from a recent Preserve Arkansas's Dollars & Sense of Historic Preservation workshop.

However, just minutes into an hour-long video featuring one of the keynote speakers of the program, commissioners shifted the conversation toward hosting such an event in El Dorado.

The Preserve Arkansas Dollars & Sense of Historic Preservation daylong workshop was held last September in Texarkana and focused on different aspects of the economic benefits of historic preservation.

While watching a video of a presentation from Michael Echols -- a Bastrop, Louisiana, native and Louisiana state representative who has renovated and restored several historic properties in North Louisiana --, commissioners agreed to watch the video on their own, noting they would not be able to finish it in the time that was allotted for their regular meeting.

Several commissioners also said they had already seen the video in its entirety.

Commissioner Diane Murfee added that she and Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC/Certified Local Government Coordinator/City Preservation Officer, attended the Preserve Arkansas Dollars & Sense of Historic Preservation training and saw the presentation firsthand.

Murfee and Eggleston had also discussed inviting another keynote speaker from the workshop -- Amber Jones, a Little Rock historic preservation consultant -- to El Dorado for a similar public event.

Jones specializes in the historic rehabilitation tax credit, National Register of Historic Places listings, facade easements and federal tax credits.

The suggestion to invite Jones to El Dorado was raised during the EHDC's regular monthly meeting Thursday.

"This is so important to us and I would really like for us to look at the big picture and accomplish something this year instead of talking about it," Commissioner Sara Coffman said after commissioners stopped the video of Nichols.

Murfee agreed, adding that she would like for the EHDC set a goal of hosting such an event in El Dorado and invite city officials and community leaders to learn more about the EHDC, its mission and historic preservation as an economic driver in the community.

Commissioner Steve Biernacki stressed the importance of developing an action plan with objectives the EHDC would like to accomplish.

Added Commissioner Jenny Norwood, "That's what we've been saying. We've talked in circles about this. What's the plan?"

Following a lengthy discussion, commissioners agreed to start by reaching out to Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, to ask for details about hosting a Preserve Arkansas event in El Dorado.

Eggleston said she will speak with Patton about the matter.

'Change the perception'

The conversation extended from a broader discussion commissioners had last month when newly-elected EHDC chairman Linda Rathbun outlined her objectives for the commission in the coming year.

Rathbun, who has previously served as EHDC chairman, was unable to attend the EHDC meeting Thursday and Coffman, vice-chairman of the commission, presided over the meeting in Rathbun's stead.

In January, Rathbun said she would like the see the EHDC foster better relationships with city officials and property/business owners within the city's commercial historic district.

She also said the EHDC needs to do a better job of promoting itself and explaining its role and function -- a long-running conversation EHDC members have had for the past few years.

The EHDC oversees the creation and operation of historic districts in the city, per city Ordinance 1686.

The city's commercial historic district covers most of downtown El Dorado, and two residential historic districts -- Mahony and Murphy-Hill -- are north of downtown, with the Murphy-Hill district extending to Fifth Street.

One of the EHDC's roles is to consider Certificates of Appropriateness, which are required for most exterior restoration/improvement projects that are proposed within the commercial historic district.

The COAs are designed to help preserve the historic and architectural integrity of the district.

The residential historic districts are honorific and do not fall under such regulations.

The EHDC also works with property owners within the historic districts to provide historic preservation tools and resources, such as assistance in applying for available tax credits for eligible restoration/preservation projects.

Architects who worked on the project to develop the MAD arts and entertainment complex applied for and were awarded state and federal tax credits to assist with the project.

Commissioner and former chairman Ken Bridges previously said the EHDC has applied for and been awarded numerous grants on behalf of the city to help cover the cost of historic preservation projects.

In 2020, the EHDC spearheaded a project to develop citywide historic preservation plan. The project was funded largely by a $42,000 Certified Local Government grant -- one of the largest CLG grants to be awarded by the state -- and a $10,000 match from the city.

The EHDC has begun implementing some of the recommendations that are listed in the citywide plan.

For example, the EHDC commissioned cultural resources and Determination of Eligibility (DOE) surveys for several neighborhoods and subdivisions -- Mellor Park, Forest Lawn/Eastridge, McKinney, Bodenhamer, Country Club Colony and Retta Brown -- to assess if the areas would be eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places with individual properties or as a historic district.

In 2022, the EHDC received the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions Excellence Award for Commission of the Year.

Biernacki said that spreading the EHDC's message can help change the negative perception that some people have about historic preservation groups, including the EHDC.

"I've had people who don't know I'm on the commission bash the commission," he said.

As executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, Biernacki said he has often heard people refer to the group as the "hysterical preservation society."

Commissioners acknowledged past tensions with property/business owners and groups regarding COA requests and exterior projects within the commercial historic district.

Revising the EHDC's design guidelines is another objective that Rathbun has set for the commission.

By strengthening local relationships, the EHDC can help property/business owners, city officials and other groups gain a better understanding of the EHDC, said Rathbun.

She has also urged commissioners to address tensions that may arise amongst themselves.

"I would like for us to remember why we're here and why we're doing what we're doing and we need to respect each other, myself included, and not be 'snipey,'" Rathbun said last month.

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