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City expands and updates Renaissance Zone

Bernie's Esquire Club utilized the Renaissance Zone program in recent renovations to their business. (Grady McGregor / The Dickinson Press)

A Dickinson State University neighborhood surrounded by coffee shops, bookstores and retail outlets connected to a walkable and bustling downtown is a vision city officials have for Dickinson's westside and they hope updates to Dickinson's Renaissance Zone will help make it happen.

Dickinson's downtown Renaissance Zone has been expanded to include areas in western downtown near DSU.

The move also involves taking out some residential areas and blocks south of the train tracks from the zone.

Steve Josephson is the Stark County planner but has also worked on Renaissance Zone issues for the city for the past several years.

"One of the objectives is to have a more walkable downtown by extending it. This way there is a more walkable connection between downtown and the university," Josephson said. "We saw that some blocks on West Villard (Street) really needed some stimulation."

The changes to the Renaissance Zone are still dependent upon approval from state authorities, but they passed Dickinson's City Commission on Oct. 2 and the city is operating as if they are already in place.

What is a Renaissance Zone?

The Renaissance Zone program was instituted by North Dakota's Department of Commerce in 1999 as an effort to incentivize downtown revitalization and development in small and large communities across the state.

Program Administrator of North Dakota's Renaissance Zones Rikki Roehrich said the program was motivated as people noticed that downtown districts were being neglected.

"Individuals and businesses were moving towards the outskirts of town where new development was happening," she said. "It was a way to incentivize development in downtown districts and keep them vibrant and healthy and draw commerce back toward the core of the cities."

The city of Dickinson adopted the Renaissance Zone program in 2004 and the zone covered much of Dickinson's downtown along with a few areas south of Villard Street.

In Dickinson, those interested in the renaissance zone apply online through the city's website, enter a public hearing process with the city who then send their applications to the state for final approval.

Those who qualify for the program are eligible for several tax benefits, though they differ for homeowners and businesses.

Businesses need to make updates to their facility that add up to 50 percent of the property value. Once the renovation project is complete, the city then freezes the assessed property value for five years giving the businesses substantial property tax savings. North Dakota then grants tax exemptions to the businesses on income from the properties for up to $500,000 for five years.

Single family residences can also qualify for the program and tax benefits if they make improvements on their property worth 20 percent of their assessed value.

The renaissance zone is especially helpful for businesses who want to make major improvements or renovations to their businesses, such as the recently renovated Bernie's Esquire Club.

President of Dickinson's Downtown Association Kristi Schwartz utilized the renaissance zone to make updates (plumbing, heating, facade updates) to a commercial downtown property she operates.

"Every project is different, for mine it was a minimal impact because the only income I generate is rent," she said. "But it's worth going through the process if you're planning updates anyway."

Josephson said about a dozen businesses and one homeowner in Dickinson have thus far taken advantage of the program.

Statewide, Roehrich said that 57 communities have adopted the Renaissance Zone program in their communities with 1,600 projects approved and 1,250 completed.

Downtown Changes

Josephson said a legislative change to renaissance zone law in 2015 that gave cities an option to expand their renaissance districts prompted the city to examine the program's impacts.

"We spent a lot of time looking at the current zone and if we wanted to move it around," he said. They found that some areas of the zone, like an industrial portion south of Villard and some residential areas, weren't taking advantage of the program and changing the zone might be more effective.

Josephson found that changing the zone to include areas around DSU, in conjunction with a potential zoning overlay to allow more commercial businesses, could help revitalize the area and connect it better with downtown.

But Josephson hopes that these changes are only part of a wider revitalization of Dickinson's downtown area, that include plans for a potential public park and Odyssey's new movie theater.

"This is a good time to expand the renaissance zone because the city is involved with other efforts to improve downtown," Josephson said. "People are drawn to downtown areas."

Grady McGregor

Grady McGregor is a city and state politics reporter for The Dickinson Press. He joined The Press in July 2017.

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