Historic District Commission plans '24 grant requests

The El Dorado Historic District is preparing its 2024 Certified Local Government grant application and has agreed include several projects in its proposal for the upcoming year.

Commissioners discussed the matter at length during a regular meeting on Nov. 9, agreeing to apply for funding to cover:

Travel and training expenses for 2024.

Hire a consultant to help amend a section of design guidelines for the El Dorado Commercial Historic District to address murals and streetscapes within the district.

Take the next step in the process to review information about certain local properties that underwent a Determination of Eligibility Survey for possible nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as individually-listed properties or as a historic district.

Conduct DOE surveys for three properties in two of the city's African American neighborhoods for possible nomination to the Arkansas Register of Historic Places.

The properties include the James Johnson Gymnasium, which is adjacent to Mattocks Park, and First Baptist Church-Cordell and the Nile and Marzell Smith Museum of African American History (historically known as the Carver [Elementary] School building), both of which are located in the St. Louis neighborhood.

Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC, said the deadline to submit the grant application is Dec. 31.

Grant awards are expected to be announced in March and projects for which funding is awarded must be completed by September of 2025.

The CLG program represents a partnership between the National Park Service, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and local governments in the state to preserve historic resources at the local level.

A city or county is eligible to participate in the CLG program if it has established a historic district commission and adopted a local preservation ordinance designating one or more local historic districts.

El Dorado is one of 21 CLG communities in Arkansas and has three historic districts that are listed on the NRHP -- the El Dorado Commercial Historic District, which largely covers the city's downtown, and the Murphy-Hill and Mahoney residential districts, both of which are just north of the Union Square District.

The pair of residential districts are honorific and are not regulated by a city ordinance, though owners of income-producing properties within the districts could be eligible for state and federal tax credits for improvement projects to the properties.

The credits also apply to eligible properties within the commercial historic district.

Eggleston noted that tax credits were approved for the effort to develop the MAD entertainment complex.

CLG grants that have been awarded to the city within the past few years funded DOE surveys for the Mellor, McKinney, Bodenhamer, Forest Lawn, Eastridge, Country Club Colony and Retta Brown neighborhoods.

If awarded a CLG grant in 2024, Eggleston said the EHDC will use a portion of the funding will be used to follow up on those surveys and advance nominations for individual properties to the State Review Board en route to consideration for placement on the NRHP.

Eggleston said she has since compiled information about the applicable properties from the Union County Tax Assessor's Office -- including confirmation of the ownership -- and sent it to the AHPP for additional research.

The James Johnson Gym, First Baptist Church-Cordell and the Carver School Building were identified as potential state register nominees as a part of an effort by the EHDC to develop an African American context for the city-wide historic preservation plan.

The plan -- which was drafted in 2020 and was covered by a CLG grant and matching funds from the city -- recommends the AA context as a priority project to identify and highlight notable Black people, places, landmarks and other historical points of interest in El Dorado.

"That's our whole purpose, is to document these houses and buildings in El Dorado to make a determination if they're eligible for the state and national registers as individual properties or as a district," said Eggleston.

"We a have combination of commercial and residential historic districts and we give (the AHPP) this information and let them advise us on the direction they would like to see is go in," she continued.

State and national historic preservation officials recommend that local design guidelines be updated every five years and Eggleston said the EHDC guidelines were last updated in 2017.

Eggleston said she learned there are available CLG grant funds that will cover the cost of hiring a consultant to help revise a section of the guidelines and commissioners agreed to focus on murals, signs and streetscapes within the commercial historic district.

Discussions about such projects picked up within the past two years, particularly with Main Street El Dorado launching crosswalk art projects and expressing interest in implementing other art projects, such as murals, in downtown El Dorado.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," said Commissioner Steve Biernacki, who has expressed support for such projects downtown.

"But we need to modify the wheel," Commissioner Linda Rathbun added.

Rathbun was part of an EHDC subcommittee that worked for nearly three years to revise the design guidelines, which were, at the time, a decade old.

The design guidelines serve as a basis to evaluate proposals that are brought before the EHDC for most exterior projects that could affect the historical and architectural character of the commercial historic districts.

The guidelines are based on the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

Eggleston said an accurate head count is needed for commissioners who plan to attend a national meeting and regional training session in 2024.

The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions biennial forum and the Commission Assistance and Mentoring Program (CAMP) are both set for next fall in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Hot Springs, respectively.

The El Dorado Historic District Commission was named of Commission of the Year during the 2022 NAPC meeting in Ohio.

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