First, let it be said that it would be great to see the former Masonic Temple at the southwest corner of 10th and Massachusetts streets brought back to life.
Local Masonic groups had to give up the iconic downtown building with its historic Reuter organ in 2003 when it became too expensive to maintain. Now local businesspeople are exploring ways to adapt the structure to other uses.
At the top of the list currently is an idea being floated by Lawrence caterer Steve Maceli to convert the building into a reception and wedding hall. Presumably the remodeled structure also could serve as rental space for other community events.
But, as Masonic officials recognized a number of years ago, refurbishing the building will take some money, and the group that owns the building, led by local businessman Doug Compton, is seeking some financial assistance in the form of tax rebates under the Neighborhood Revitalization Act.
There are several ways to look at this request. Some local residents probably think that Compton and his group have deep enough pockets to take on the necessary improvements to the Masonic Temple. That may be true, but they also are businesspeople and must weigh the potential return on any investment they make.
As public financial assistance goes, the tax rebates being requested are fairly attractive for both city taxpayers and the building’s owners. The owners would continue to pay property taxes on the current value of the building, but would receive a break on the additional taxes that would be based on the increased valuation that would result from improvements to the building. Their request is for a 15-year rebate that would decline by 5 percent a year.
Under the rebate terms, the property taxes on the building would steadily increase. If the building continues to sit vacant, the taxes will remain the same or perhaps decline.
A tax rebate may be appropriate as an incentive to revitalize a notable building like the Masonic Temple. Representatives of the ownership group say they have tried to find a tenant for the building, but most potential tenants would want to significantly change the building’s interior and perhaps alter its Egyptian Revival facade. It’s probably worth something to the community as a whole to maintain the facade and the basic layout of the building, as Maceli proposes.
The owners also are asking the city to consider ways it could help with the installation of a fire sprinkler system in the building. After a devastating fire in downtown Fort Scott a number of years ago, the city helped some downtown businesses add sprinkler systems. So there is some precedent for that type of assistance, but there’s also a limit to how much the city can afford to commit.
It’s nice to have local businesspeople thinking creatively about how to use this building — and how needed improvements could be financed. Refurbishing the Masonic Temple would be a benefit for the public, but it also would benefit the building’s owners. The challenge for city officials is to find the proper balance between those two interests.