Main Street Meets Opportunity Zones In Brigham City

For years the Union Block building haunted Main Street in Brigham City, Utah. It was “sucking air out of the town,” Donna Walker says. “It sat there for about three years or so, vacant.”

The two-story brick building was completed in 1892, when Brigham City’s population was just over 2,000 people. According to its National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, the Union Block housed a saloon, a produce company, a pharmacy, business offices, and apartments in its early years. From 1929 to 1986 J.C. Penney leased the building. Into the early ‘90s it was an arcade. A century of changes to the building’s facade and occupants paralleled Brigham City’s growth into a small city of more than 17,000.

In more recent years, unoccupied and in disrepair, the Union Block was a reminder of the many obstacles to small-city development. Opportunities in small cities can be elusive. The best-paying new jobs are in large, coastal cities. According to a 2018 report from the Brookings Institution, cities “with populations over 1 million have flourished, accounting for 72 percent of the nation’s employment growth since the financial crisis.”

When small cities face fiscal and developmental triage, historic buildings often languish before being demolished. Tearing down the Union Block to make space for a new construction makes financial sense. Preserving, restoring or rehabilitating historic buildings involves difficult materials and custom work.

Paul Larsen, Brigham City’s Economic Development Director, saw the vacant state of the Union Block as symbolic of negative attitudes about the small city’s fortunes. “There are people here that remember when it was J.C. Penney’s, and then it went vacant for a while, and then there was another clothing store in there for a while, and then it was vacant.” Larson says, “I think it just feeds this thought that, ‘well, as long as I can remember downtown’s been struggling.’”

David and Donna Walker, the Union Block’s current owners, recall that a man delivering construction materials questioned why they were even bothering, advising them to bulldoze the place and start over.

But the Walkers aren’t bulldozing the 127-year-old building. Instead, they’re restoring it. “You just can’t doze it and put something else up and expect to have the same sense of community,” says David.

The Walkers noticed that a communal space was missing from Main Street after they formed a group to help preserve Brigham City’s Historic Downtown and spur economic development. As David puts it, “we’ve been working on trying to bring events and activities here into downtown, and as we’ve done that, we’ve realized that there’s some limitations.” David says, “structurally, we didn’t have any really good place to gather.”

That concern for the city’s history and people is why the Walkers are willing to put in so much extra effort. And the Walkers are doing a lot of that extra work themselves. David is even milling old-growth maple floorboards by hand as part of the building’s repair.

“For at least the last 30 years, I’ve always been involved in renovating something,” says David. He enjoys the process. “I’ve always been naturally curious. I like fixing things.”

But the Walkers aren’t sustaining their efforts solely through a love for community and an appreciation for fixing things. The Opportunity Zone tax incentive made it possible for the Walkers to secure the outside investment that their project needed.

The Walkers approached investors. Because the Union Block is within a designated Opportunity Zone — one of more than 8,700 across the country — those investors were able to move unrealized capital gains into a Qualified Opportunity Fund to help finance the Union Block’s restoration. The investors will avoid a degree of taxes on those gains depending on how long they leave them invested in the Opportunity Zone.

Fran Leslie, who runs a quilt shop in Brigham City, is happy that the Walkers have taken up the Union Block’s cause. “It’s fabulous. Here’s this old, dilapidated building just sitting there,” says Leslie, “and now you go in there and look at it and it’s beautiful.”

“It’s fun to see these old historic buildings around Main Street being uplifted and being used again,” says Leslie.

“The building just has a good vibe to it,” says David. “It’s like this overseer of our Main Street and it’s always been a big part of the community. It just needs to be preserved and somebody’s got to do it.”

Thanks to the Walker’s determination and Opportunity Zone investment, the Union Block will soon be open to the community, attracting events and people. This hopefully means Brigham City can compete with larger cities on quality of life and its Main Street can better host specialized businesses like Fran Leslie’s quilt shop, the kinds that don’t compete with big-box stores and online retailers.

Paul Laursen sees this as something of a model for Brigham City and cities its size. “I think we’re seeing progress that way in our downtown, and I think that all over the nation, that’s kind of the way that downtown’s are able to compete and revitalize is by carving out a niche, identifying a strategy, and pursuing it.”

Read the full article on Forbes here.