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Finding a road to historic preservation

April 08, 1999

Bernard Callan Jr. is passionate about historic preservation, but says he's also a practical businessman who "still measures things by the bottom line." And after more than 30 years in business in Frederick, Callan says he's convinced that saving and restoring old buildings pays off in real dollars.

He'll bring his message to Hagerstown next Tuesday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at the Frostburg University conference center on West Washington Street in downtown Hagerstown as a part of a "Preservation and Progress" meeting sponsored by the Washington County Historical Advisory Committee.

Callan says he's seen a renewed emphasis on preservation bring economic benefits firsthand in Frederick after, he says, the city hit "rock bottom" in the late 1960s. To combat the decay, he became part of a group called Operation Town Action. After several consultant studies were done, Callan said the group determined that Frederick's future was in what he facetiously calls "dead people and dirty buildings."

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The history of people like Francis Scott Key and Barbara Fritchie and Frederick's unique architecture would bring more visitors to the city, the group reasoned, provided it was marketed correctly and the people working there had the right attitude.

"Appearance is what we were concerned with. If a downtown looks good and if there is a good feeling that is evident to people walking down the street, it usually turns into reality," Callan said, but added that "you really have to educate the people" on how to be visitor-friendly.

The employees of his own business, an auto parts store, were trained to tell those who came in for a carburetor, or whatever, where the best restaurants were, and what there was to see and do in the city.

But isn't renovating historic property more expensive than building something new?

"I have looked at some different studies, and although every building is different and there's no cookie-cutter formula for this stuff, but most of the time when you factor in tax receipts and other economic incentives, you usually come out dollars-in-the-pocket ahead of the game," he said.

Callan said a new study that's about to be released by the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions on the economic benefits of preservation districts showed that in the six cities studied (including Frederick) property values went up more within historic district areas than outside their boundaries.

Does that mean we should preserve every old structure?

"Every old building cannot be saved. You have to save old buildings to make them a contributing part of the county," he said, adding that if that can't be done, the building may have to come down.

How many buildings have you been involved in renovating?

"It's actually a corporation, which has been involved in renovating six buildings at this point in time," he said. Callan said he might do more if he weren't so busy traveling around the county as a preservation consultant, an avocation he thought would be part-time at best when he sold the auto parts business in 1991.

Aside from incentives like the 25 percent income-tax credit Maryland offers to renovators of historic properties, what else is needed to make money in this field?

"You have to have a commitment from the local government that they believe in historic preservation and will use it as an economic-development tool," he said.

Another thing that made it easier in Frederick, Callan said, is the frugal nature of the town's property owners, who didn't "mess up" their buildings in the 1950s and '60s before there was a historic district commission to review renovation proposals.

"We didn't have to have a lot of fights with people," he said.

When I asked Callan is there was anything else it's important for people to know about him, he emphasized that he was no starry-eyed history buff, but a practical businessman - a bank director and former chamber of commerce president - who sees preservation as a practical economic-development tool.

Callan is being brought in as part of an effort to educate developers and citizens alike, according to Yvonne Hope, who chairs the Washington County Historical Advisory Committee.

"But before we can do that, we have to get everybody together," she said.

What she didn't say, but what has to be on everybody's mind following the recent loss of several historically significant structures is the possibility that the county may need a group like the City of Hagerstown has to review renovation proposals and demolition permits for historic properties. Like zoning in the early 1970s, such a proposal would likely produce a lot of grumbling. But until enlightened attitudes like Callan's are the norm, some protection in law may be necessary.

IF you'd like to attend the program on April 13, please register by sending a fax to 301-432-6794. Reservation requests can also be e-mailed to Mavaho@erols.com, or by regular mail to 22 Mount Hebron Road, Keedysville, Md., 21756.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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