Kern County In Depth: Can historic preservation each improve cities and revenue property house owners? Mills Act says sure

by: Robert Price, Robert Price

Posted: Dec 6, 2020 / 08:43 PM PST
Updated: Dec 6, 2020 / 08:50 PM PST

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — If you know California well enough, and you appreciate history, you know places like Old Town Pasadena, San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and Anaheim’s Colony Historical District — places where the past is not relegated to the past at all, but preserved and celebrated.

And not just for esoteric or academic purposes. Because we’re drawn to them. Old buildings, both residential and commercial, when they’ve been restored, renovated or otherwise maintained, touch something in us that says — this piece of history is special, relevant, and worthy.

No better example exists in Bakersfield today than the Padre Hotel, completed in 1928. The eight-story Spanish colonial revival hotel had an auspicious and flamboyant beginning in the Central Valley’s raucous oil rush days, but throughout the second half of the 20th century, under the colorful ownership of Milton “Spartacus” Miller, the iconoclast who re-christened it the Alamo Tombstone, it fell into disrepair and near-abandonment.

Today it thrives as a boutique hotel, bistro and gathering place — and an example of what a private buyer can do with creativity and government good will in the form of negotiated tax incentives.

The Padre is the physical and cultural center of Bakersfield’s once derelict but now re-energized downtown.

Imagine what the city could do with a dozen Padre Hotels of different sizes, shapes and purposes.

Imagine what it could do with the same kind of blessing and financial incentive that historic property owners receive in, say, San Diego or Anaheim.

If you’re having trouble visualizing the benefits of historic preservation, listen to Kern County museum executive director Mike McCoy — and the others who joined the conversation for Kern County In Depth’s look at historic preservation.

The key ingredient is the Mill Act, a state law that can help transform historic preservation from an expensive luxury to a win-win-win that benefits local residents, local governments and the property owners of those old treasures — both financially and terms of shared quality of life.

The state law, which allows cities and counties to give property owners tax breaks in exchange for their promise to protect historical integrity, is available as an option to local jurisdictions that makes preservation not just affordable — but profitable. And it’s not exactly a secret.

Well, perhaps except in Bakersfield, the largest city in California that does not have a Mills Act.

Which probably is why this city does not have a lot of Padre Hotels — or much of anything of its calibre or pedigree.

What is the Mills Act? What is it capable of? And what have other cities done with it?

All good questions — answered in this edition of Kern County In-Depth.