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Group: Preserve historic edifices

November 22, 2018

A group of local activists said it would soon unveil a campaign to raise $25 million to purchase the East Broadway block that’s home to Cafe Genevieve, Persephone Bakery and Healthy Being Juicery, with the goal of preserving its historic buildings in perpetuity.

The announcement came Monday during an event to rally support for “saving” the block amid a pending real estate sale.

The lot is listed at $25 million by Gardner Capital Management, the owner, and is under contract. Ryan Nourai, one of the event’s organizers, urged the audience to pressure elected officials to prevent that transaction, buying time for his group to fundraise.

“This entire room has already moved mountains,” he said.

Nourai, along with several others who spoke Monday at Thai Me Up to a crowd of about 50 interested community members, is involved with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Conservation Leadership Institute.

Some at the meeting seemed skeptical of the group’s lofty fundraising goal. Nourai acknowledged it’s a tall order but said that after speaking with individuals and nonprofits “who are capable of taking this project on,” they didn’t bat an eyelash at the price tag.

Jeff Golightly, vice president of Gardner Capital Management, attended the event to answer questions from the company’s perspective. He said $25 million is “a little more than we have on the table now,” and if possible they’d prefer the property go to a buyer that would preserve it.

“All things being equal,” Golightly said, “Gardner would rather sell it to a group like you guys are trying to put together.

“I love this block as much as many people in this room do,” he said.

Another option Nourai said they may pursue is a specific purpose excise tax, or SPET, to generate public funding for the purchase. This 1 percent sales tax would likely go to a vote sometime next year — the earliest opportunity being in May — assuming the town and county are on board.

SPET funding is generally used only for governmental projects, so it’s unclear how exactly such an arrangement would work. Clare Stumpf, one of the organizers, said a public-private partnership is one possibility.

But, she said, private funding, rather than SPET money, is probably their best bet. In that case a nonprofit group could take ownership of the block.

Aside from plans to purchase the property organizers have set their sights on a broader preservation fix: solid protections and incentives for historic preservation, which are all but nonexistent in Teton County.

Alyssa Friedman, another of the organizers, called the current provisions and procedures “toothless.” The Historic Preservation Board’s sole authority in town is to put a 90-day stay on a demolition permit.

“Instead of encouraging preservation,” Friedman said, “we need the force of law ... to prevent these threats to our collective history and our economy.”

Katherine Wonson, chair of the Historic Preservation Board, was encouraged by the crowd at Thai Me Up.

“It’s awesome to hear people speaking our language,” she said. “Literally the terms we use and everything like that. I think we thought we were the only people who cared.”

Wonson and other speakers conjured images of a bygone Jackson, of an “eke-it-out” age in which Genevieve Van Vleck lived in the 1910 log cabin that is now her namesake cafe. Van Vleck, one of Jackson’s founding figures, served on the nation’s first all-female town council in 1920.

The speakers contrasted this heritage with the town’s more recent trend toward growth and heavy tourism. But even now, they said, the Genevieve block stands out as a place of genuine community character, where you can lounge on the lawn and probably bump into friends.

“Jackson Hole is already becoming a Disneyland version of itself,” Friedman said. “Preserving this space is symbolic of preserving our culture — past, present and future.”

Part of the angst over the block’s sale comes from the rumor that it’s going to luxury hotel chain Ritz-Carlton. Golightly said that was “absolutely incorrect” but that the contract does not allow him to disclose the potential buyer.

When the council rezoned the downtown area in 2016, it left the Cafe Genevieve block alone at the recommendation of the Historic Preservation Board. Now, Gardner Capital is seeking to change the block’s zoning to match that of the surrounding area, making it more valuable to developers.

Gardner Capital seeks to strike a deal with the Historic Preservation Board in which the board will support the rezone in exchange for Gardner Capital committing to preserving some structures on-site.

It’s the first time a landowner has approached the board to offer a voluntary, permanent deed restriction for preservation, Wonson said. Negotiations over terms of a permanent deed restriction on the block are ongoing.

Organizers of Monday’s event suggested supporters contact the Town Council, asking it to reject the rezone. Though Gardner Capital agreed to keep the Cafe Genevieve building in place in exchange for the zoning change, the two other buildings could be moved.

“We don’t really think this is a great deal,” Stumpf said Monday.

Noting that the Town Council’s first hearing of the rezone request is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 17 in the Town Council chambers, Nourai closed with an appeal.

“Show up to that meeting,” he said. “Say how you feel.”

This version of the article has a sentence about the Genevieve block zoning that has been revised to include a more precise verb about the block’s proposed zoning change. — Ed.

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