Richmond’s Historic Preservation Commission members want to better promote and influence preservation in the city.

Most are citizens living in historic homes who want to protect and enhance the city’s history. Unfortunately, the group often is called upon to make difficult decisions about demolitions involving historic buildings.

They are taking steps, however, to expand their impact beyond just those sometimes-controversial decisions. They’ve designed and approved a brochure describing the commission’s responsibilities and goals. They recommended stiffer fines for violations, which Richmond Common Council recently approved. They plan to apply for a $3,000 Indiana Landmarks matching grant and are brainstorming ideas on how best to use the money.

During the commission’s May 8 meeting, Matt Stegall of Richmond Columbian Properties brought Bill Schmickle and Paul Smith, two men experienced with historic preservation commissions who were featured speakers at the next day’s Columbian Properties’ Quality of Place Conference.

When asked, members identified an absence of interest in local history and named crime as problems impacting preservation in Richmond.

“This community is just full of unbelievable ties to our national heritage,” member Jerry Purcell said.

However, that hasn’t translated to preservation interest. Schmickle said the group might need to “whack the hornet’s nest” for residents to pay attention.

Progress also is hampered by crime, transient people and squatting in neighborhoods with historic homes.

“There are areas that have beautiful historic properties that are worth nothing because no one wants to buy into a crime-ridden area,” commission member Michele Walker said.

Smith, who led a preservation commission in Indianapolis, said his area had the same problems in the 1970s. He said improvement comes from people caring about their neighborhoods, watching their streets and following the see-something-say-something mantra.

As the commission develops, Stegall suggested members build a relationship with Indiana Landmarks, which serves as a preservation mentor to communities throughout the state. 

Schmickle also stressed the need for strict enforcement. Richmond boosted the fine for demolition violations to $2,500 and the fine for other violations to $300, then up to $7,500 for additional offenses. Schmickle said Annapolis, Maryland, where he served on the preservation commission, required similar structures replace structures demolished in violation. Fines are assessed daily until the replacement is finished.

Without stiff penalties, the fines can easily be absorbed as a cost of doing business. Schmickle said it’s important to be formidable with violators.

Schmickle also said HPCs should not look to stop change, but should be “facilitators of good projects or reasonable projects” that help preserve properties.

During their discussion about a project for grant money, which would total $6,000 with the grant and city match, members liked the idea of conducting workshops that can be shared digitally. The workshops would relay project options and information, such as what to do if your plaster cracks or that it’s actually cheaper to restore the original windows than to replace them. 

The workshops could also provide information about contractors with the proper skills to handle preservation work.

Commission member Stephanie Van Slyke said she communicates with others who work on historic homes, and they’ve discussed the workshop concept previously.

“I think there’s a lot of people with really good information to share and that are already sharing it, so they probably have things that are ready to go as far as how to fix the window or how to fix your walls,” she said. “This would be really cool for our community to gain excitement and increase pride.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.