New business owner excited to work with City, tax abatement program

Charlie Denison


Local financial advisor and new business owner Joe Eckhardt made an appearance at Monday’s City Commission meeting, where he discussed his plan for 214 and 214 ½ West Main Street –properties that now belong to him and his wife, Tammy.

The 214 West Main Street property, best known as the old Empire Café, will get quite the makeover, as Joe plans to turn the old “greasy spoon” into a quilt store, which his wife will operate.

In order to complete the transformation, improvements must be made. Joe is thinking big, hoping to completely refurbish the old restaurant and redo the second floor as well for occupancy as office space.

“We are gutting the building and getting it totally ready for the Aug. 29 soft opening and the Sept. 2 grand opening,” Joe told Commissioners Monday. “There will be no more cheeseburgers. Instead, there will be fabric.”

Eager to work with the City, Joe applied for the tax abatement program, an incentive the City has available for those interested in making improvements on their property.

“The tax abatement program is a delay in the payment of the full value of taxes due to improved property value,” City Planner Duane Ferdinand said. “If improvements to a building increase the taxable value of the property, full taxation will not occur until the phasing period has been completed.”

According to Ferdinand, tax abatement programs generally have a 12-month construction period followed by a three-year exemption period. After that, a phasing period starts at 20 percent a year. By year five of the tax abatement program, the property owner will pay 100 percent of the taxes that have been assessed on the improved property.

The amount of taxes depends on the amount of improvements.

“You have to make enough improvements to where the value of the improvements exceed five percent of the unimproved values,” Ferdinand said. “If you had a project on a building worth $100,000, for example, the property would have to be worth at least $105,000 after construction to qualify for the program.”

To dispel some rumors, Ferdinand, interim City Manager Holly Phelps and some of the City Commissioners clarified that the tax abatement program “does not get someone out of paying taxes.”

“People continue to pay the taxes presently assessed, or pre-renovation taxes,” Phelps said. "They are still taxed. There is just a delay in the increased tax base for the renovation."

Joe said he looks forward to getting started on the renovations, but right now asbestos is getting removed from the old floor tile.

“Asbestos is very common in old buildings in Lewistown,” Phelps said.

It’s been a month now since Joe and Tammy moved forward with the plan to purchase the properties on the 200-block of Main Street, and, so far, despite mandatory changes for public safety purposes, all has gone well.

“There are things I am having to do that cost me money to provide for public safety and comply with regulations, and I am willing to do them because I respect [fire marshal] Joe Ward and his position in the community. Getting fire-rated windows, for example, is part of the process of building renovations.”

Phelps said she is pleased to see Joe and Tammy working with the City and is glad to see them go forward with a new business downtown.

"I think it's great [Joe and Tammy] are investing in the community," Phelps said, "and I'm glad to hear he had a positive experience working through the process."

Similarly, Joe said he appreciated a warm reception from Phelps and commissioners Monday evening.

“I felt like I was presenting a proposal to increase the taxes I was paying based on the reception I had,” he said. “The reaction or the response to my request was received so positively as to encourage me in my project. I felt supported by those who were in a position to offer that support.”

As construction begins, Joe also said the part of the property currently being rented as a flower shop will remain a flower shop, and he is happy to have them. The flower shop is not part of the application for tax benefits.





Other Business

Representatives of “Make It Happen,” a grassroots nonprofit organization geared toward creating a skate park in Lewistown, gave a presentation on the skate park plan for City Commissioners during the Committee of the Whole meeting. Parks and Recreation Director Jim Daniels expressed his support during the presentation, which went over positively with the City Commissioners.

• Wayfinding signs are now up around town. There is one at 6th Avenue and Brassey Street to more clearly indicate where the high school is and another near Frank Day Park to help visitors find the Lewistown City Pool.

“They’re not all up yet,” City Planner Duane Ferdinand added.

• Interim City Manager Holly Phelps said a public hearing is set for Tuesday, July 26 at the community center to gage interest on the Riverdale Project, which is part of the Treasure State Endowment Program grant the City received. Those affected by the sewer project will get letters in the mail regarding the meeting.

• During Monday’s meeting, commissioners made a motion to keep the cost of the street maintenance assessment at 3.1 cents per square foot. Phelps said projects are going well this summer.

“[Public Works] is getting good projects done and making leeway with other infrastructure,” she said.

• Phelps told the News-Argus Thursday the transition to interim manager has been smooth thus far.

“[Myhre] spent a lot of time going over projects and upcoming things and continues to be an advocate for the City,” she said.

As far as how long she will be interim, is unclear.

"Truly the election this November will determine the fate of the city manager position," she said.




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