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Grants will help preserve history and explore Willow River potential

The old Soo Line depot is one of 12 New Richmond buildings listed on the National or State Register’s Record of Historic Buildings. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Wisconsin Conservation Corps volunteers began work clearing the Willow River Water Trail in the fall of 2016. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

The City of New Richmond recently received two grants, one for $24,900 from the Wisconsin Historical Society and one for $10,000 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). City Management Analyst Noah Wiedenfeld sat down with the News to explain each grant.

New Richmond was one of only six communities statewide to receive the Historical Society grant and the $24,900 check was the largest of the six awards.

"Only certain communities in the state are eligible to receive the grant. In most cases you have to have a historic preservation commission of some sort and New Richmond has one. New Richmond has had a Historic Preservation Committee for years. It's a city board. Their responsibilities include approving the facade grants. They also work with the historic district, the homes over on First Street and in that area," said Wiedenfeld.

To apply for the grant last year, Wiedenfeld contacted several consulting companies who specialize in conducting historical preservation surveys and who are "approved" by the Society in Madison, to obtain three estimates to include with the application.

There are currently 12 buildings and one "district" listed on the National or State Register's Record including the Soo Line Railroad Depot and the original New Richmond News Building currently occupied by NP Photography and Design. According to Weidenfeld, New Richmond last conducted a survey in the 1980's at which time several properties were identified as eligible to be listed. The fact that downtown has a good population of buildings from the 1800s and 1900s and that so few have been identified as historically significant sparked Wiedenfeld's interest and resulted in the grant application.

"Looking at our downtown with all these 1900-1910 buildings, and there's only a few on the list, that kind of surprised me," said Wiedenfeld.

The idea behind the survey is to identify residential and commercial properties that might qualify to be registered. The project then makes experts available to property owners to explain the process required to register a building and the potential benefits that come with being recognized as a historically significant property. For commercial buildings, those benefits can include a 20 percent federal and 20 percent state tax credit. Roughly the same benefit would be available to a homeowner. In both cases, additional state and sometimes federal funds may be available once a property is recorded on the registry. As Wiedenfeld noted, this can be a "game changer" for someone looking to do some extensive rehab work.

Expenditures must meet specific criteria to be reimbursed.

The more intangible benefit to the city is contributing to a communal sense of place by celebrating the community's history. Tax credits provide economic incentive to get the work done. Bu that work preserves not just the buildings themselves but also the historic character of the community as a whole. It helps to tell that story and celebrate that history.

"I think the John Doar History Trail is kind of the start of that. Hopefully that builds more interest and promoting local history," said Wiedenfeld.

Wiedenfeld used another example, the Old Gem Theater, to demonstrate how doing the detective work to reveal the history of a building not only makes history personal but exciting. President John F. Kennedy once gave a speech at the theater.

"I did some leg work looking up whether I could prove that he was actually here. I found his daily log records through the JFK Presidential Library and found yes, he was here. You can find the speech he gave. Then that starts to build the story of, where did he stay when he was here, where did he eat. I think it will be fun and fascinating for folks to learn and piece together these stories. It becomes a way for us to celebrate our sense of place," said Wiedenfeld.

Moving forward, the plan is for the city to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) this spring, select a consultant this summer in time to host an informational meeting with city staff, the consultant, representatives from the Wisconsin Historical Society and residents late summer or early this fall. The actual comprehensive survey would take place going into 2019. Wiedenfeld expects the survey to take at least several weeks and may require several preliminary visits by representatives of the Historical Society and the consulting firm.

Taming the Willow River

The city also successfully applied for a planning grant for the Willow River Water Trail Project and received $10,000 in funds from the DNR in March.

The parameters of this grant limit its use to "planning" aspects of the Water Trail Project, so it cannot be used to pay for physical implementation of things like access landings or shoreline restoration. Unlike the Historical Society grant in which the city will play an active role in the use of the funds, the city will pass the DNR funds through to New Richmond Pathways, a project committee of the New Richmond Area Community Foundation (NRACF), to employ the funds.

"We love the concept of having a water trail. It's a good example of a citizen-led project. It goes back to 2016. I credit Harvey Halvorsen, Jim Heebink, Dan Olene, and Irv Sather, who worked with the Pathways Committee to bring the Wisconsin Conservation Corps through last year. If we can find some state money to help assist, then that's great," said Wiedenfeld.

The grant is intended to help establish an active friends group and to pay for setting up a website and having maps and brochures made that show the various routes and estimated times as well as parking areas and public access points, restaurants and hotels. The grant will also pay for chainsaw training for the friends group enabling them to be responsible for annual maintenance of the river trail. Part of the funding will also be used to create a long-term plan for recreation.

Wiedenfeld also noted there will be an educational component to the planning.

"We're looking at creating an educational plan, identifying opportunities for the high school, WITC and UWRF. We want to solicit public input from as many different groups as possible and from all of the communities along the river not just New Richmond," said Wiedenfeld.

The city expects to have the new launch at the Nature Center completed this spring. As a way to draw attention to the program, a grand opening is planned.

"We're hoping to do kind of a grand opening with a cookout and Willow Kayaks has offered to make all their equipment available that day for free. We're hoping to line up some local dignitaries to hop into a canoe that morning and test out the launch site," said Wiedenfeld.

A meeting of the various interest groups including citizens, the CAP Committee, Pathways Committee and USFWS is being planned in the near future to coordinate ideas and efforts all aimed at keeping the best interests of the river at heart.

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