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Restore SGF: City officials view historic neighborhoods as unique asset in region

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This is the third in a series of articles about the top 10 initiatives of Forward SGF, a comprehensive plan that, if approved by City Council in the fall, will carry the city of Springfield through its next 20 years. The plan is currently being rolled out in draft form for residents to review.

Vision 2020, Springfield’s last 20-year plan, had a strong focus on growing and improving the city’s downtown and Commercial Street districts.

“Anyone who was here 20 years ago would say those two districts are far improved from two decades ago,” said Brendan Griesemer, assistant director of planning and development for the city.

It’s time to widen the lens.

“Now the city’s saying we need to focus on our neighborhoods,” he said.

On the periphery of both the downtown and C-Street districts are historic neighborhoods that Griesemer described as distinctive assets to the region.

“In this area, Springfield has a very unique position in that we have by and large the most historic housing stock,” he said.

For many people, envisioning a neighborhood means seeing generous front porches complete with swings. The houses themselves might sport gabled roofs, hand-carved brackets beneath the eaves or paned doors – architectural extras that would cost a premium today but were organically part of a historic home.

Forward SGF, the proposed comprehensive plan to cover the next 20 years, lists restoration of neighborhoods as its top initiative, and a city program called Restore SGF is its main tool for promoting ownership and stewardship in historic neighborhoods near the center of the city.

Restore SGF
The chief goal of the Restore SGF program is to increase home ownership by offering low-interest financing and grants for rehabbing older homes in historic neighborhoods, according to its website.

The initiative is a passion project for Councilperson Richard Ollis, a lifelong Springfieldian who grew up near Commercial Street and recently moved back to a center city neighborhood from the suburbs.

“I grew up in Midtown, and I was the third generation of my family to go to Boyd, Pipkin and Central [schools],” he said. “My family lived in a wonderful neighborhood where we walked to school, we walked to dinner at a restaurant, we walked to do our back-to-school shopping. I walked to church every Sunday.”

Now that he and his wife, Teresa, live in Rountree, they find themselves walking again, often to a neighborhood eatery or bar.

“I think that’s what so many people want in their living environment today,” he said. “Frankly, we have those opportunities if we’ll just reinvest in these neighborhoods and homes so we can see them thrive again.”

Restore SGF is still in the organizing stages – no projects have yet been funded – but restoring homes is its purpose, and by second quarter of next year, the organization will have three staff members in place and will be ready to start serving as a central resource point for all residential incentives and loan programs offered by the city, according to the Forward SGF draft.

City Council recently designated $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds to Restore SGF, and several banks also have offered pledges of support, according to Rusty Worley, co-chair of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council.

Worley said the city offers a lot of good programs for people who are income qualified, but Restore SGF is intended for anyone.

“We want to be bringing in new investment to these historic neighborhoods,” he said.

City publication Neighborhood News spells out two programs that will kick off in the second quarter of 2023: the Block Challenge Program and the Homeowner Improvement Program.

The Block Challenge Program, based on Des Moines, Iowa’s Invest DSM program, invites neighbors to work together on exterior improvements to their properties. In Des Moines, groups of at least five neighbors within sight of one another’s front doors must apply together for matching funds up to $2,500. A dollar-for-dollar match is provided as incentive for exterior improvements, according to the Invest DSM website.

The Homeowner Improvement Program will provide forgivable loans or grants for individual homeowners to improve curb appeal and marketability of their homes.

The city reports that support for Restore SGF has been pledged by Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc., with a five-year, $100,000 grant. Additionally, OakStar Bank, Commerce Bank and Legacy Bank have each committed $30,000 over three years, and Central Bank has pledged $60,000 over three years.

Legacy Bank and Central Bank have pledged $250,000 for a Restore SGF revolving loan fund, and Systematic Savings Bank committed $500,000 to mortgage loans in the program.

Other banking partners are still being sought by the city.

Homeownership is a meaningful investment, Ollis said.

“The No. 1 wealth-building tool for American families is owning a home,” he said. “If you buy a home and you’re investing in a community and a neighborhood, many times you’re also saying at the same time, I’m investing in my career, and in some cases even a specific company.”

The 2020 Census reported only 42% of Springfield residents owned the home they occupy. That’s a mark of concern for the city’s neighborhoods.

“Although rentals are needed and desired, neighborhoods are not built typically around rentals,” Ollis said.

A case study
Adrianna Bruening is one Springfield resident who saw the potential in a historic home. A bungalow at 1896 N. Douglas Ave. in her Woodland Heights neighborhood caught her eye. The yard was trashed, and the home was in disrepair, but people often remark about a home that it has good bones. Bruening used her X-ray vision and detected a beautiful home beneath what was visible.

To purchase the home, Bruening said she paid off the remaining mortgage and negotiated a price with the residents. She also helped the residents to move their things.

“I lived in that neighborhood for seven years,” Bruening said. “I saw a change that needed to happen, especially for our neighbors. This brought a change in that neighborhood they said they hadn’t seen in 30 years.”

A lot of the work involved was hauling away trash the residents had been throwing into their cellar, which filled about 15 dumpsters.

After clearing the house out, the renovation and restoration commenced.

“It wasn’t just laying laminate over the floor; it was tearing it down to the studs and reinforcing it,” she said. “This was an investment.”

Bruening, a real estate agent, said when she started, property in that part of the neighborhood was selling for under $70 per square foot. Now it’s selling for $120-$130 per square foot, depending on finishes.

Bruening sold the house in October 2020 for a reported $139,900, and it sold again in July 2021 for $195,000.

Having restored one home, Bruening would like to do another, and she said she is excited about the prospects she sees with Restore SGF.

“You can buy a home in that neighborhood for under $50,000,” she said. “It’s so worth it in these historic homes to renovate them.”

Worley said Bruening’s successful Woodland Heights restoration is the kind of initiative Restore SGF encourages.

“That’s the kind of thing we’d like to see in our historic neighborhoods,” he said.

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