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Century-old Cass County schoolhouse gets new life in $16M project boosted by historic tax credits

PLATTSMOUTH, Nebraska — A basketball court was resurrected in this town’s old high school, though the hoop today is more for show than sport and is likely to become the backdrop for a trendy coffee bar.

A basketball court was restored as a feature in the Lofts on Main historic renovation project. While people have been shooting around some, it is not supposed to be for actual play, officials said, and likely will be a community social spot. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Chalkboards remain in what once were the chemistry and math rooms, now apartments. Look-alike book lockers line the main hallway, along with a vintage trophy case stuffed with Plattsmouth Blue Devils athletic relics.

With a boost from public incentives, including state historic tax credits, the former Plattsmouth High School built more than a century ago is now fully transformed into an apartment building that has been brimming since March with residents.

On Thursday, History Nebraska’s historic preservation office welcomed local, state and federal officials to a “Rehab Roadshow” that celebrated the nearly $16 million project. In addition to the 25 units in the rehabbed schoolhouse, which were responsible for the bulk of the cost, the price tag includes a 15-unit, newly constructed apartment structure nearby.

The event was intended to highlight economic development tools that are available — and at least one that is at risk — to restore and reuse Nebraska landmarks.

Heart of the community

To the group of about two dozen, Plattsmouth Mayor Paul Lambert spoke about how important rescuing the 106-year-old school, now called the Lofts on Main, was to the small community of about 6,500.

The project not only fires up nostalgia, he said, but also adds workforce housing vital to new employers that have moved to the area in recent years.

“This building is in the heart of the community,” Lambert said, noting emotional ties to many, including his wife and siblings. “If I had torn this down, I would have had to leave home.”

The former high school sat vacant for years and was dilapidated to the point it was headed for demolition. Plattsmouth Mayor Paul Lambert said several developers turned the other way before the current RMDX team stepped up. (Courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture)

He said the structure was falling apart after sitting vacant for numerous years. Another school facility had replaced it back in 1976, he said, and the property was used only off and on after that for a couple of decades.

It was at the point of demolition, Lambert said, when the RMDX development team came forward.

Historic tax credit financing requires significant features be retained. The developer, for example, tried to maintain the look of hallway book lockers. (Courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto)

He said the city agreed to contribute about $1 million over a 10-year period in local incentives that typically go to encourage business development, not residential.

Filling gaps

RMDX’s Ryan Durant and Michael Sothan, historic tax credit coordinator at History Nebraska, said federal and state historic tax credit programs as well as a state tax abatement program and low-income housing tax credits filled financial gaps and made the project feasible.

But, said Sothan, the state historic tax credit program created in 2015 to incentivize the rehab and reuse of historic structures faces challenges.

The Nebraska Legislature, when reauthorizing the program last year, set the program’s annual allowable credits to offset tax liability at $2 million. It was once $15 million a year, said Sothan.

The good news, he said, is that the program has a reserve built up of about $55 million.

“It could be wiped out in one year, three years, it certainly won’t last more than five years,” Sothan said.

He said that without a change in legislation, the program in the long run would not be able to sustain the current demand for credits.

“It creates some uncertainty,” he said. “We do have some time.”

Sothan said the Legislature last year took positive steps in other aspects, including lifting the state income tax credit ceiling for a qualified rehab project from $1 million per project to $2 million.

Things you wouldn’t build today

The Rehab Roadshow, he said, is intended to encourage continuation of restoration projects boosted by state historic tax credits. Among the guests at the Lofts on Main event was Elmwood State Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

Vintage trophy case in the Lofts on Main, formerly Plattsmouth High School. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

History Nebraska plans to take its roadshow this year to Norfolk and Red Cloud, where it will feature restoration projects in those towns.

Participation in the historic tax credit program requires developers to preserve character-defining features — which was not easy with the decaying structure, said Abby Hegemann of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.

“It was a challenge,” she said, during a tour that highlighted restored features such as the lower floor basketball court, student locker rooms, a boiler room-turned apartment.

Each dwelling is unique, said Durant, and has a distinct personality. But pictures, tin ceilings and other decor tie together to provide the schoolhouse feel.

“There are some really neat things you wouldn’t build today,” he said. “It’s fun.”

In the backyard of the Lofts at Main are flower beds and a seating area for apartment-dwellers. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)