Smithfield will seek an expiring tax credit for its former water-treatment plant.
At its November meeting, the Town Council agreed to ask the State Historic Preservation Office for a mill-rehabilitation tax credit for the long-abandoned water plant. With the tax credit, a developer might find it affordable to breath new life into the building.
No developer has expressed an interest in the building, but the tax credit is set to expire Dec. 31. That’s why the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. asked the Town Council to apply for the tax credit, said Sarah Edwards, the group’s executive director.
In response to the closing of textile, tobacco and furniture plants, the N.C. General Assembly created the tax credit in 2006 to encourage private developers to find new uses for those buildings. The credit has fueled the rehabilitation of many former plants, including the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.
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On top of the 30 percent state tax credits, such projects also qualify for a 20 percent federal tax credit. Together, the credits can reduce rehabilitation costs by 50 percent, Edwards noted.
As part of tax reform approved last year, the legislature agreed to end the tax credit Dec. 31, prompting developers statewide to hurry to win historic certification for pending projects.
Without the tax credit, it’s unlikely a developer could take on the old water plant, Edwards said. “It’s a big project,” she said. “It will definitely require a significant investment.”
Smithfield built the water plant in 1913 with a $55,000 bond that also helped build a sewer system and and electricity substation. On a National Register of Historic Places nomination form, E.R. Patterson wrote about the night the lights came on:
“The electricity ... traveled 186,000 miles per second to Raleigh and thence to a substation in Selma and from there to our substation at the end of Caswell Street. There somebody pushed a lever, and the whole length of all the streets in Smithfield became bright paths.
“We stood on the porches for a few seconds in awed silence. Then there was a spontaneous cheer from the people standing on the porches. ... We rushed to the intersections and danced among the insects, which were already fluttering around the lights.”
In the past, neighbors have balked at attempts to find a new use for the 101-year-old building; they would rather see it torn down.
But Edwards remains hopeful that the building could become a restaurant, an event space or home to a river outfitter.
“We need to make better use of what we have and make possibilities,” Edwards said.
Old town hall
Another building in need of a new use is the former town hall on South Fourth Street. Now in private hands, the building has sat empty since the town moved out in 1999, and the county has condemned it.
Edwards said she has talked to hospitality-industry experts about the feasibility of turning the building into a bed and breakfast.
“We don’t have anywhere in Smithfield that’s not a typical chain hotel,” she said. “There’s definitely potential there. I’ve been working to reach out to people in that world to figure out where we need to be.”
While the building would require a lot of money to fix, it’s not mill credit-eligible because it’s not on the National Register, Edwards said.
At a recent Town Council meeting, Councilman Emery Ashley and Town Manager Paul Sabiston argued over the building. Sabiston said he wants the private owners to repair the long-neglected building as quickly as possible. Ashley said he wants to have more discussions with the property owners before forcing them to act.
Councilman Perry Harris said the town had already cut the building’s owners a lot of slack.
“We can’t let it sit there and fester forever without doing something with it,” he said. “The city and Downtown Development have bent over backwards trying to help those guys. They’ve not been willing to invest money needed to keep it up to standards, and that is a reality.”
Harris added that if the town wants building owners to maintain their properties, it needs to do its part. He pointed to the old water plant as an example.
“There are people in this town that can do this town better justice,” he said. “This town has got a group of folks that could invest more in this town than (the current owners).”
Perry said some people in Smithfield clearly care more about their interests than the town’s. “Many of our citizens that can do this want to be treated special – that’s part of the problem with this town,” he said. “They ought to be setting an example for the rest of our community.”