A proposal to use rebated property taxes to help put the former Masonic Temple at 10th and Massachusetts streets back into service is a good deal for the city.
The city’s Public Incentives Review Committee decided on Tuesday to recommend that the Lawrence City Commission approve a plan that would rebate a portion of the property taxes on the expected increased value of the building to the property’s owners. That money would be used to remodel the building for use as a banquet venue. Under the provisions of the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, the developers would continue to pay their full property tax bill on the current value of the building, about $400,000. As the project proceeds and the value of the property increases, a portion of the property taxes paid on the increased value would be returned to the building’s owners on a decreasing scale for 10 years. The proposed rebate would start at 95 percent and decline by 5 percent per year until it reaches 50 percent in the 10th and final year.
The PIRC also is recommending that the city commit about $48,000 to help install a ramp to meet handicapped accessibility requirements and a fire sprinkler system.
The recommendation is a little less than developers were seeking and it pencils out well on paper for the city. Every dollar the city invests or rebates in the project is calculated to produce a return of $2.69 in revenue for the city. The long-term increase in property taxes also would benefit county government and the Lawrence school district.
Beyond pure dollars and cents, this project has an intangible value to Lawrence. The former Masonic Hall was built in 1910 and its Egyptian Revival facade is a distinctive feature of the downtown landscape. It’s highly unlikely the building could be converted to office space or other more traditional uses without spoiling its historic character. The building already has stood empty for almost a decade, awaiting a creative proposal that would put it back into use. The property owners and Lawrence caterer Steve Maceli are willing to make a significant investment in this project, but it probably won’t be possible without some kind of public support.
The fact that the property taxes will be paid and then rebated could give the city a little more leverage in the project. The city’s recommendation includes a provision that the annual tax rebate and payments will be conditioned on the continued use of the building as a caterer/dining facility. The owners are required to notify the city and get approval for any change in the building’s use.
City commissioners should never take tax rebates or abatements lightly, but sometimes it’s appropriate to provide public support for a project that has a clear public benefit. Putting a local landmark like the former Masonic Temple back into use is such a project and deserves the city’s support.