May 17, 2017

Tax Credits Infuse New Life into Piqua, Ohio's Grande Dame Hotel

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: OZinOH/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The former Fort Piqua Hotel in Piqua, Ohio, underwent a $23 million rehabilitation in 2007-2008.

There was a time when Piqua, Ohio, was known as “The Atomic City.” Although the country’s first municipally operated nuclear power plant only functioned in this town in western Ohio for four years, from 1962-'66, it was enough to put Piqua, which has a present-day population of about 20,000, on the national map.

The story of the Fort Piqua Hotel starts about 70 years earlier, when the town of Piqua revolved around agriculture and industry. (It was also, in the late 19th century, a major center of underwear production.) This 85,000-square-foot hotel was built in the Richardson Romanesque style by William P. Orr and Samuel K. Statler in 1892 on the city’s main square, and it served as a high-profile way stop for railroad travelers coming to Chicago from the East Coast.

It also holds an outsized place in Piqua’s Civil Rights-era history: In 1947, the local chapter of the NAACP held a sit-in at the hotel’s Bus Stop Restaurant to protest the establishment’s segregated seating practices.

By the 1980s, however, the hotel had fallen into disrepair, and the five-story building sat vacant on the town square. Water poured into the lobby through a broken skylight every time it rained.

“Given another five to 10 years, the building would have collapsed,” says Jim Oda, director of the Piqua Public Library. “The roof was practically a nonentity, the walls were bulging, there were a huge number of leaks and holes that went from the fifth floor down to the basement. It was pretty much as bad as it could be.”

The City of Piqua pondered the question of whether the building could—or should—be restored throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Demolition was estimated to cost between $750,000 and $1 million, with the overhead for a full restoration pegged at significantly more. The city hired Jeff Wray Architects of nearby Dayton to conduct a feasibility study and determine a few possible reuse options.

photo by: Ohio Redevelopment Projects - ODSA/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The event space in Fort Piqua Plaza is a popular local spot for weddings.

As the development team was considering available funding resources for the building’s preservation, the Ohio legislature passed a state historic tax credit, and the city received notice that the project was eligible for $1.3 million in Clean Ohio Brownfield Revitalization Funds. There was a catch, though—in order to receive the Clean Ohio funds, the project needed to begin in the next 10 days, and the city still had a gap of $3.6 million for the project’s first phase. The city decided to ask residents for donations to save the hotel, and the community raised the required amount of money within the 10-day limit.

Work on the building included extensive asbestos remediation, and construction crews were tasked with addressing decades of deferred maintenance. “The bird droppings in some places were over three or four inches deep,” says Oda. “There were places where you could reach in and take the floorboards and pick them up like pudding. One of the last owner’s ideas of preservation was to board up the top floor when the roof started leaking.”

As a result of the architectural assessment, the city decided to redevelop the building into a mixed-use structure that would include space for the Piqua Public Library, as well as a restaurant, a banquet and event hall, and retail space. The total cost for the redevelopment capped out at over $23 million, a figure which includes state and federal historic tax credits, New Markets tax credits, Clean Ohio funds, $3.6 million from the citizens of Piqua, and an $8.5 million loan from the city itself.

The rebirth of the Fort Piqua Hotel, now called the Fort Piqua Plaza, has also spurred other redevelopment efforts in the city’s downtown, including streetscape improvements and plans to target several other sites for brownfield cleanup.

The Piqua Public Library moved into the rehabbed building in October of 2008, and Oda says that the new space has given the library an ideal venue to provide resources to patrons and townspeople.

“It’s tremendous. It’s outstanding,” he says. “We can do things here we never could have done in our former location, from programming to historic tours.”

Although the city can no longer call itself "atomic," the future of its downtown is looking bright all the same.

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Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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