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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

The revelation of a beautiful old building at 18th and Chester is giving historic preservation in Bakersfield a much-needed kick.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Sam Abed, the new owner of the building at the northeast corner of Chester Avenue and 18th Street in Bakersfield, seems excited about restoring the architectural features of the old bank building.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

A spray cleaning is underway on the old building that was once a bank at the northeast corner of 18th Street and Chester Avenue in downtown Bakersfield.

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The Security Trust bank on the northeast corner of Chester Avenue and 18th Street in downtown Bakersfield was built in 1910. Later, the neoclassical architecture was covered by a stucco facade. On Thursday, workers began stripping that facade in preparation for a new chapter in the building's 104-year history. Photo courtesy of David Cross.

Historic preservationists have long found fault with the propensity of local leaders and property owners to demolish historic buildings first and ask questions later.

But that old way of thinking may be on its way out as county supervisors prepare a plan to provide tax incentives to commercial property owners intended to encourage restoration and preservation.

Third District Supervisor Mike Maggard, a longtime conservative with a decided independent streak, was a central figure in moving the idea forward.

"Back in mid-July, we had a first reading of an ordinance that would authorize the use of the Mills Act to incentivize the public to refurbish and restore and improve historic buildings," Maggard said.

Then in late July, the board voted 5-0 to direct staff to develop a Kern County Mills Act program that would provide for establishing 10-year contracts with commercial property owners.

The Mills Act, a statewide program enacted in 1972, allows qualifying owners to receive a property tax reduction to make it more economically feasible to restore and maintain historic buildings. The incentive program requires local governments to contract with the owner.

Scores of California communities have used the law to encourage historic preservation efforts.

Neither Kern County nor Bakersfield has ever entered into a Mills Act contract.

But after seeing the sandstone pillars of the 104-year-old bank building at Chester Avenue and 18th Street emerge last spring from beneath a covering of plain, white stucco, Maggard decided it was time to act.

"It was just fascinating to see the beauty of it unfold," Maggard said of the neoclassic structure.

"I talked to my staff and tried to figure out a way we could provide an incentive -- not a giveaway, not a gift, but kind of a partnership with the private sector."

Once established, the contracts would be limited to commercial and industrial buildings determined to be qualified historical properties.

An inspection of eligible buildings would be required, with additional inspections at five-year intervals. Structures would have to have an assessed value of less than $3 million.

And the building would have to be on a list of historic places.

Unfortunately for Sam Abed, the owner of the building that inspired Maggard to act, only buildings in unincorporated Kern County will be covered by the new ordinance.

But that could soon change as at least two Bakersfield city council members have expressed interest in following the county's lead.

Both Ward 2's Terry Maxwell and Ward 7's Russell Johnson said they would need to study the details before supporting a similar city ordinance, but in general, they approve of the spirit of the county's effort.

Johnson said he would be willing to bring the matter forward, but would first defer to Maxwell as many historic structures are located in Maxwell's downtown ward.

"If there's a tool in our municipal tool chest we can use to bring attention to downtown, to make it more vibrant, I'm all for it," Johnson said.

Abed views the new local interest in preservation as a positive development. But as a businessman, he's also cautious about being tied to conditions about how he can develop his building.

"As an owner, you have to do a lot of research," he said. "Will it benefit you or hold you back?"

Meanwhile, Abed said he has been approached by at least two potential tenants for the unique building. One is a casual food chain restaurant; the other is a bank. But neither has committed.

"We haven't been able to pull the trigger," he said.

The draft of the county ordinance is expected to come before supervisors in October. Maggard said he expects it to pass.

The utilitarian approach to preservation and planning that has long been so dominant in Kern County has led us to where we are today, Maggard said. It's time for that to change.

For years, much of our planning has been tied to the ability of municipal garbage trucks to maneuver the streets and alleys of our communities.

"Plans have been based on the turning radius of a garbage truck," he said. "That can't be what we build our future on."