The Alabama Historical Commission deemed Camp Hill's South Main Street a "historic commercial district" by unanimous vote at its quarterly meeting Thursday, a decision greatly owing to the campaigning of Emberly Zellars.
"This is good for our area," said Zellars, who grew up in Auburn but has a lifelong connection to the town. "Camp Hill will now finally be able to join Dadeville and Alexander City which have had their historic registration for years."
After applying for the designation earlier this year — which involved sending in documentation of the town's old commercial units, down to pictures of any historically significant architectural details — Zellars attended the state historic preservation office's meeting with several family members including her grandfather John Zellars, who bought up about half of South Main Street's empty storefronts in the '80s and '90s in what ended up being the last gasp of Camp Hill's once-bustling commercial district.
For the past year, the restoration of those storefronts has become a passion project for Zellars, despite now living near D.C. working for the federal government. Getting the units historically recognized was a key to step to open up other avenues for financing, including tax breaks for commercial businesses aiding preservation efforts by choosing to locate in a historically significant site.
The historic status will also open up new funding avenues for the Town of Camp Hill.
"It was important for us to get historic designation in order to get preservation grants," Camp Hill mayor Messiah Williams-Cole said.
For Williams-Cole, it's also a step in the right direction his constituents' greatest concern — the dilapidation of Main Street. Where some see a charming historic relic, others see a big mess and safety hazard.
"Those properties are my biggest complaint from citizens and the problem is we don't own those properties," Williams-Cole said, who is now hoping to get some of the other owners of those commercial units in on the preservation efforts.
At the suggestion of the historical commission, Zellars is now seeking to get the new historic district on the "Places in Peril" list, sort of like the historic-designation equivalent of the endangered species list.
"Basically it shines a light," she said. "They said it goes statewide, sometimes nation(wide), so it kind of puts more of a spotlight on it to hopefully capture some interest and assistance in with rehabilitation."
Downtown Camp Hill is now one of three historically recognized districts in the county, along with Alexander City's commercial district, listed in 2000, and Dadeville Historic District listed in 2012. Camp Hill's designation extends to 23 Main Street units in all, which include buildings —whether wholly or partially intact — and a few old building sites.
Zellars' ultimate goal is to restore her family's downtown units one-by-one, where she can either start her own ventures or lease to other local businesses and give historic Camp Hill a present-day purpose.