Vicksburg’s past is key to its future


By Leeanne Seaver

In spite of various efforts and attempts at modernization, Vicksburg’s architectural DNA remains intricately coiled around the fretwork and finials of what was originally a 19th century Victorian village.

That said, a lot has changed over 150 years since the town’s founding. From an historical perspective, the mid-20th century architectural updates are just as important to the story of Vicksburg. Indeed, change is the cost of survival – and more change is in the offing. Vicksburg is now being nominated for official recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, and that designation will create incentives for everything “new” to be old again.

Consider the recently restored facades at 101 and 103 Prairie Street. If those meticulously re-constructed walls complete with their period-correct hardware could talk, they might have more to say about their future than their past. The Prairie Ronde Artist Residency occupants are currently bringing a spark of fresh life with every gallery exhibit and event staged in what were formerly a dress store and a sweet shop, among other things. And the exciting new developments with a “Mackenzies Vicksburg” will create a wholesale bread business as the next iteration of those outlets.

What was once Dancer’s Department Store and the former Home-Again Consignment store on Main Street is already taking shape as a bar and music venue with residences upstairs – including one for the Mill Music Residency. The facility will be conducive to multipurpose use – ideal as a black box theater space or small venue for talks or presentations. And Vicksburg’s stately, rehabilitated two-story red brick Community Center that started its life as the McElvain House in 1872 might once again provide lodging. “Eventually, it could be a neat boutique hotel,” said Jackie Koney, chief operating officer for Paper City, LLC.

That’s only the beginning. Paper City Development CEO Chris Moore, who owns those four buildings and the former paper mill, among others, has combined a grand vision with the right reasons for restoration and repurposing. “This is about preserving our past while creating a new economic engine in Vicksburg,” Moore said. His development of the century-old Lee Paper Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, provides an example. Across its 120-acre campus, a mixed-use venue for music, conventions, cultural events, a museum and beer production will be surrounded by walkways through the restored creek and landscape.

The economics of both out-going costs and incoming profits factor in this process. Buildings within the proposed historic district may be eligible for financial incentives that could help them gain a new lease on life. The timing couldn’t be better as some of them are in dire need of much more than just a facelift. “Our goal is to completely renovate all of our buildings to historic standards – inside and out – then fill them with businesses and some residential,” Jackie Koney explained.

That Takes Money

Renovations are costly, and many building owners can’t afford them. So preservationists celebrated when Michigan’s historic tax credit incentive program was reinstated in late 2020. Now eligible projects could, upon approval and available funds at the state level, receive historic tax credits from the state (at 25%) and federal government (at 20%) to significantly offset the cost of renovation. 

Specifically, commercial property owners could be eligible for both state and federal tax credits (which can be combined) while homeowners are eligible for state tax credits. The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) administers the tax credit programs, and property owners interested in pursuing tax credits should contact the SHPO as early in their planning process as possible. More information about these programs and staff contact information may be found at https://www.miplace.org/historic-preservation/programs-and-services/historic-preservation-tax-credits.

For Paper City Development, these incentives are a big help. “This makes the math much more manageable,” Koney acknowledged. “And it allows us to possibly get moving on the buildings.”

Some things couldn’t wait, like re-roofing the former Hills’s Pharmacy on Main Street, but for the most part, the developer has held off work since state historic tax credits can’t be retroactively applied. Moving forward will be slow but steady. “We will likely take the buildings on one at a time because it’s still a ton of money and you have to pay for everything first and then get the tax credit after the work is all done,” Koney explained.

The Age of Eligibility 

Progress hinges in part on Vicksburg making the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural historian Cheri LaFlamme Szcodronski, owner of Firefly Preservation Consulting, LLC, was engaged by Paper City Development to research and write the Village’s nomination. The process has been slowed by COVID-19 health and safety restrictions, but a proposed boundary has been identified based on the highest concentration of contiguous commercial, residential, and institutional buildings that retain most of their historic form and materials.

Within that construct, the proposed historic district boundaries would extend to the creek on the west; Highway Street on the south; the middle school/admin building/Richardson Street on the east; and the post office/Prairie Street/railroad tracks to the north. “This area represents the oldest section of the village, which was laid out in the mid-1800s,” Szcodronski noted, “and most houses and businesses here still retain their late-19th and early-to-mid-20th century character.”

Commercial and residential buildings that contribute to the proposed historic district have been recommended in Szcodronski’s report, which will be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office. “Contributing” refers to structures built prior to 1972 that retain a high degree of architectural integrity—i.e., buildings with original materials, porches, doors, windows, and no large additions, as well as updates that meet the minimum fifty-year age requirement.

Enclosed porches, replacement windows, synthetic siding, storefront alterations, etc., don’t necessarily render an eligible building “noncontributing.” Any property owners interested in finding out if their building qualifies (or could be altered accordingly) are welcome to contact Szcodronski directly at cheri@fireflypreservation.com.

The Local Impact

This summer, the historic district nomination will be reviewed by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and State Historic Preservation Review Board, then will be forwarded to the National Park Service for final review and listing. If Vicksburg is officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the implications for property owners inside the historic district boundaries are positive.

Vicksburg Hardware owner Steve Schimp is on board. “It sounds like building owners would have an opportunity to either make improvements if the credits are enough for them to afford updates, or have the option to do nothing. It is a nice step forward that will only help to improve the look of Vicksburg.”

While the federal historic tax credits are only eligible for commercial buildings, the state historic tax credits are open to residential properties as well as commercial. “That’s one more reason preservationists were excited about the return of the state HTC – because it opened up possibilities for residential,” Jackie Koney confirmed. “But there’s nothing property owners have to do – just enjoy the national recognition of historic significance,” she said. “There is zero regulation of anyone’s remodeling here, unless you want to apply for historic tax credits.”

As a member of the Vicksburg Village Council and a homeowner within the historic district, Gail Reisterer is excited for the growth and interest that this designation will bring. “We cannot stay stagnant as a community and expect to survive,” Reisterer said. “Since I own a Victorian home built in 1870, I am very excited about the possibility for the Village to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I feel it is so important to preserve things of the past as they guide us to realize our dreams for the future.”

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