By Mary Catherine Gaston
The State of Georgia's Historic Tax Credit Program provides a state income tax credit to individuals who renovate qualified historic properties. During the 2019 legislative session the Assembly updated the program to extend the window during which the credits may be used and to remove the program's end-date of 2024. Created in 2002, the historic tax credit program has encouraged historic rehabilitation projects throughout the state, and approximately 300 of those have utilized the credit.
In this three-part series, the Rural Center will highlight three projects in rural areas that utilized the tax credit and have helped spur economic development and local pride in their communities.
Visitors to downtown Tifton today might find it hard to imagine, but in the 1980s, the small town’s sprawling business district was virtually a ghost town. According to one local, a person could aim a shotgun down the center of the main thoroughfare any day or night of the week, squeeze the trigger and not hit a single car.
This certainly wasn’t the case when Tifton businessman-turned-developer Harold Harper Sr. first settled and opened his surveying shop there in 1956. By the late 70s, however, Harper had come to view the once-thriving downtown’s sad decline and seemingly eminent death as a personal challenge, and he set out to bring back the buzz that had drawn him to Tifton a quarter century earlier.
In 1982, Harper began the first of numerous renovation and redevelopment projects he would complete in the heart of the Friendly City, igniting a remarkable revitalization movement that would result in the revival of one of Georgia’s most energetic rural downtowns.
Though each of his many projects was unique, a common thread ran through most of Harper’s historic rehabilitation projects. A firm believer in historic preservation tax credit programs, he utilized state and federal credits on numerous projects. One such project, the Lofts at Twin Brick, turned out to be the last the award-winning preservationist would complete before passing away in February at 89 years old.
Built in 1923, the two identical, red brick warehouses were originally used as tobacco warehouses and later housed the local Coca-cola distributor. Harper purchased the complex and began redeveloping the property in 2015. Two years later the 44,000-square-foot project was complete. When the 33 luxury apartments at Twin Brick became available for lease in 2017, they were snapped up quickly by young professionals, retirees, empty-nesters and college students who were attracted by all that downtown Tifton now has to offer.
“While we can tell you how much we invested in the building and how many jobs we’ve created with this project, there’s another aspect that is harder to measure,” said Harper’s son, Hal, who now leads his late father’s real estate enterprise. “We have 33 people living downtown today who otherwise would not. They all have to eat and shop somewhere, and so, we now have more people patronizing downtown businesses.”
Twin Brick is also home to a thriving Italian restaurant with 15-20 employees. The second of the two buildings is currently being restored.
The younger Harper, who worked alongside his dad in his renovation efforts for years, is also an advocate for the state’s historic preservation tax credit program.
“Historic renovation is costly. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Harper says. “The tax credits themselves are a significant aid to folks who want to do this. A lot of times, until you get into the bones of these old buildings, you really don’t know what you are dealing with. You need that incentive to keep going. It is money well spent.”