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Could a historic district revitalize Sitka’s brand?

Organizers of a downtown revitalization effort in Sitka are taking a look at an unconventional approach to bringing new energy to the community: By keeping some things the same.

This week a historic preservation consultant and two architectural historians are documenting over 70 properties along Sitka’s waterfront, with an eye toward one day creating a historic district on the National Register.


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Rob Meinhardt and Anne Pollnow will host a public meeting Tue Jan 14 to discuss the possibilities for a Sitka Historic District, beginning at 5:30 PM in Harrigan Centennial Hall.

Jo Anne and John Owens, of Tallahassee, Fla., walk along Lincoln Street shops in the summer of 2012.  (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Jo Anne and John Owens, of Tallahassee, Fla., walk along Lincoln Street shops in the summer of 2012. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

For what is arguably one of Alaska’s most history-filled communities, the idea of creating a historic district along Lincoln Street has not always been popular.

Anne Pollnow is a member of Sitka’s Downtown Revitalization Committee. She thinks the times — and attitudes — have changed.

“There is that sense that this is my property,” she says. “I don’t want anybody telling me what to do with it — completely understandable. These myths are being dispelled. It’s already happening, and showing in the lower 48 and in Alaska, that it’s working, helping communities to revive their local economies.”

Pollnow is a professional archaeologist, and she’s been involved with the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission. Although past efforts to create a historic district in Sitka have failed, it’s evident that walking down Lincoln St., from Sitka National Historical Park to the ANB Founders Hall, that the community is really invested in its history.

Rob Meinhardt is visiting from Wasilla. “It sounds like the district has grown organically — even though there’s not a formal designation of a district — through people’s interest and their pride in the community, a district has sort of formed on its own,” he says. Meinhardt’s business is called True North Sustainable Development Solutions. “What we want to do is channel that, and figure out where it is that the community needs to go.”

Meinhardt says there are three kinds of historic districts: Local, when you have a small area with a clear historic core; conservation, where there are historic structures but a central historic theme is harder to nail down; and National Register.

Sitka already has 19 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the entire Sheldon Jackson campus. Meinhardt thinks this is the way the community should go.

“National Register Districts are great because if you leave them as-is there are really no requirements for keeping a property a certain way. A lot of times certain people don’t want restrictions in their district, so the National Register, there’s no restrictions per say, unless there’s federal funding coming in, or if you’re going after some kind of federal tax credit or tax deduction.”

Historic districts are nothing new in Alaska — many communities have them, Juneau and Ketchikan to name two. Meinhardt says that Juneau adopted a more stringent design standard in its historic district, but it’s paid off for property owners.

“When you talk stabilization of property values, when you talk increase in real estate market values — it is exactly what people don’t want that increases those market values. So, the community keeps a strong hold on what that district looks like.”

Meinhardt says the first step in creating a historic district is to engage the community — businesses and residents — in defining what they want out of a historic district. Next comes an inventory of historic properties, and then applying the criteria of the National Register to that inventory. If it all adds up, Meinhardt then brings it back to the community to submit an application to the National Park Service, which administers the register.

Anne Pollnow says this is not about making Sitka look historic, with quaint streetlights, or other accessories. Creating a historic district is about celebrating what’s already here.

“Part of marketing Sitka is marketing our assets. And our assets are our cultural resources and our buildings — our history.”

Funding for True North’s survey work comes from a certified local government grant. Pollnow says similar grants recently have paid for an assessment of the Sage Building, preservation work on the ANB Founders Hall and Japonski Boat House, and on travel for Russian scholars to Sitka for a conference on Russian America.

She called it one of the last — and best — sources of government funding for historic preservation available.

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