(Originally published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, November 21, 2005)
Fort Collins' historic Old Town is being held up as a model to cities across Colorado of how historic preservation can be a significant economic engine.
Between 1979 and 2003, property values in Old Town soared 721 percent, compared to a 423 percent appreciation rate in areas nearby not designated as historic, according to a recently-published study for the Colorado Historical Foundation.
The study - titled The Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation in Colorado 2005 Update - focused on Old Town because it has been designated as historic by city, state and national officials for almost 30 years.
Historic preservation is a key strategy for successful community planning and economic development, in addition to protecting and appreciating the past, the study said.
The renovated Armstrong Hotel, featured on the cover of the study, is one example of how business and property owners can use historic preservation to their benefit.
Intuitively, Armstrong Hotel owners Steve and Missy Levinger several years ago figured they would reap the benefits of renovating the hotel and first floor shops. The couple had previously renovated several houses and buildings downtown, all 60 to 100 years old.
"Sitting here empty for so long, The Armstrong Hotel was probably the last shot for Fort Collins to get a historic hotel," Steve Levinger said. "I'd driven past it a million times ... we almost converted it into apartments, but in the planning stages we realized it was built to be a hotel. We take great pride in that today."
The businesses on the first floor of the building opened months before the hotel in 2003. Mugs Coffee Lounge, HuHot Mongolian Grill, the Pita Pit and Choice City Butcher and Deli employ nearly 100 people. They bring in more than 1,000 customers per day combined, and an estimated $10,000 in sales tax monthly.
"These things start with the city (government)," said Steve Levinger. "Fort Collins not only has the policy regulations, it's committed resources to historic preservation. And it has paid off for them. It's the right thing to do and it also brings in economic benefits."
Armstrong Hotel by the numbers
$4.5 million: The total cost, including land, of starting the business and renovating
$10,000: Grants received by the Armstrong Hotel from the city of Fort Collins
$196,000: Grants received from the Colorado Historic Foundation
$285,000: Grants received from the Downtown Development Authority
$28,000: Annual property taxes of the Armstrong Hotel before renovation
$63,000: Annual property taxes of the Armstrong Hotel after renovation
Historic loans and grants covered $491,000 of the $3 million renovation, not including land acquisition and business start-up costs. That's 19.5 percent of the renovation, or 10 percent of the $4.5 million total cost, to turn a vacant, old building into a lively, historic street corner with several thriving businesses.
Before the refurbishment, the Armstrong Hotel generated $28,000 in property taxes annually. Now it generates $63,000 a year, said Steve Levinger.
In that same time frame, three other sites have undertaken economic development within a block of the Armstrong. Taste of Philly restaurant opened across the street. Northern Engineering is building Old Town Lofts, a three-story office and loft building at 200 S. College Ave. At the corner of College Avenue and Olive Street, developer Archie Solsky is planning a six-story loft and commercial building.
Like many Armstrong Hotel guests, Anne and Jay Ghosh of Dallas, Texas, walked next door last week to Mugs Coffee Lounge for breakfast after their stay. As seasoned travelers visiting old friends, they quickly discovered the Armstrong Hotel online, rated No. 1 in Fort Collins on tripadvisor.com. Their friends also recommended staying in Old Town for its tourist appeal.
"Every city in the world is different. We like to discover the unique aspects about each place we visit," said Anne Ghosh. The couple was enthusiastic about the 10 to 20 percent discounts they would receive at Old Town shops as Armstrong guests. Forty businesses have joined the Armstrong Hotel's "Shop and Stay" discount program. The hotel's promotion is entering its second holiday season.
"We like the hubbub here in Old Town, and the fabulous old historic buildings," said Jay Ghosh. "It's a nice bonus to be within walking distance of places to eat and shop around."
History buffs like the Ghoshs spent $3.4 billion in 2003. Such heritage tourism is a growing market, according to the study. Colorado visitors occasionally move to Colorado, further adding to economic development.
Colorado Historical Foundation executive director Lane Ittelson said in a press release that the comprehensive statewide study reiterated how important Colorado's past can be for its future economic success.
"Those of us who are deeply involved in historic preservation have long known of its value in creating and maintaining livable communities, and keeping alive those connections in our past," Ittelson said. "But it is especially gratifying to see the value of preservation quantified in hard numbers and to see how important it has been for economic development in Colorado."