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Main Spotlight: Catalyzing Upper Floor Housing with the Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant Program

August 2, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Catalyzing Upper Floor Housing with the Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant Program | By: Emily Kurash Casey, Director of Community Programs at Rethos |
Interior upper floor in Red Wing, MN. Photo by Megan Tsui.

The quantity and quality of housing in Main Street districts has become an increasingly important focus point for many programs. Research conducted by Main Street America and funded by the 1772 Foundation has found that 75% of Main Street managers feel that there is not enough housing to accommodate everyone who wants to live in their district. Established development models often are not well-suited to meet the specific needs of these communities. Main Street America’s housing research found that “the financial risk associated with small-scale development, adaptive reuse, and upper-floor activation projects can scare off otherwise interested property owners, developers, and lending institutions.”
New approaches are needed to bridge this gap and spur development in vacant or underutilized upper floors. One potential solution is leveraging dedicated state and federal preservation funds as the basis for new projects. These funders understand the complexity of historic preservation projects and are more willing to take on the risks associated with development in historic downtown corridors. Many of these funding opportunities are also grant-based and do not expect a financial return on their investment, which results in greater community investment.

One example of this model is being implemented in Minnesota Main Street communities through the $700,000 Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant recently awarded to Rethos: Places Reimagined (the Coordinating partner for Minnesota Main Streets). Building owners in Main Street communities with a population under 50,000 throughout Minnesota will have the chance to apply for re-granted funds to boost investment in their upper floor spaces through this new program, called “Looking Up.”

What is Looking Up?

The Minnesota Main Streets “Looking Up” program will focus on assisting owners of historic rural downtown buildings rehabilitate their second stories. There’s been some excellent attention paid to ground floor store front spaces, but Minnesota’s Main Street communities throughout the state have experienced underutilized upper floors leading to disrepair and the need for significant updates. Rethos has been coordinating the Minnesota Main Street program since 2010. Since that time (and previously, since its inception in 1981) Rethos has not had an opportunity to offer funds of this level to individual owners for building redevelopment. There is incredible need in greater Minnesota for support for folks who want to update their historic buildings but lack the capital to fully fund the work. Making upper floors not only habitable, but accessible and safe, is crucial to the continuation of successful downtown districts.

Dr. Heidi Swank, the Executive Director at Rethos, shared that “We’re thrilled to be able to provide an opportunity for physical revitalization of buildings in our Main Street communities. Access to capital for rehabilitation is critical for the continued growth of economic development efforts in our historic downtowns and drawing attention to the upper floors of buildings will help communities solve a range of issues, from housing to expanded business space.”

Rethos’ inspiration for this project came from the Main Street America network. Thanks to learning sessions at the Main Street Now conferences and support from past successful Paul Bruhn grant recipients (like Ray Scriber with Louisiana Main Street and Main Street America’s work in New Mexico), we were able to really think through what we needed in Minnesota Main Streets and how to make that work valuable of support from the National Park Service.

Alleviating Housing Shortages

While the Looking Up program won’t exclusively be used to create housing, Rethos staff expect that several grants will be used to update or create new housing units in upper floor spaces of downtown buildings. The housing shortage in Minnesota is significant. While news sources have cited the Twin Cities metro area (Minneapolis/St. Paul) as the worst in the nation, greater Minnesota is feeling the same crunch. By offering resources like the Paul Bruhn grant to small-scale developers and building owners in Main Street communities, Rethos hopes to create catalyst projects that stir rehabilitation projects on upper floor spaces throughout the communities that receive these grants and around the entire state.

What’s Next

While applications for grants are not open yet, Rethos has already received an incredible amount of interest from building owners in our Main Street districts who are ready and waiting for support. It has also led to discussions with other funding partners in the state who are interested in leveraging this grant for further impact and exploring ways to match these funds in their local areas. Already, Rethos is seeing traction from this grant, and the work has barely begun. We’re looking forward to the projects that will take place because the “Looking Up” program will make them possible, and in turn the greater impacts the downtown districts that these buildings are in will feel.

For updates on projects and progress with the Rethos “Looking Up” Paul Bruhn Grant, follow Rethos on social media or watch our website for regular updates.
The Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant Program is part of the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), an important source of national grant funding for preservation projects as well as essential funding for State and Tribal Historic Preservation Organizations and Certified Local Governments. Funding levels for the HPF and programs like Paul Bruhn are established annually through the appropriations process. Recently, both the House and Senate released appropriations bills including the Department of the Interior. Funding for Paul Bruhn Revitalization grants remained at $10M in the House appropriations bill, while it was increased to $12.5M in the Senate draft. The two bills differ in overall HPF appropriations, with the Senate offering a $20M increase.

In February, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández (NM-03) and Representative Blumenauer (OR-03), the Co-Chair of the Historic Preservation Caucus, introduced the Historic Preservation Enhancement Act (H.R. 6589) to permanently authorize the HPF and increase deposits to $300M annually to be expended without further congressional appropriation. Main Street America and our partners are working with Congress to move this bipartisan legislation forward and ensure long-term support for preservation projects.

How can you help? Join the Historic Preservation Advocacy conversation at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Past Forward 2022.

As part of the online conference experience this year, the NTHP Government Relations department is organizing a federal advocacy opportunity. If you are interested in virtually educating your Members of Congress about preservation priorities while attending the conference, please select this as an event option during your registration process. A volunteer Advocacy Captain will contact you with state-specific details. Register by September 26 for the best rates >

About the Author

Emily Kurash Casey is the Director of Community Programs at Rethos, and statewide coordinator for Minnesota Main Street. She works to grow Rethos’ educational offerings, community engagement work, and Main Street program throughout the state. Previously, Emily ran the Main Street program in Winona, MN, and worked in economic development efforts in Decorah, Iowa. She has also worked as a theater/arts administrator and teaching artist and spent significant time working with rural non-profits as a board member and facilitator, leading programs focused on revitalizing downtowns, activating young professionals, and fostering cross-collaboration between municipalities, businesses, volunteers, and artists.

Rethos: Places Reimagined is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to historic preservation, education, and economic development based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Founded in 1981, Rethos delivers programs in five states and manages the statewide Minnesota Main Streets program. For more information visit