Last week I spent an afternoon with the City of Painesville Economic Development Director and the Downtown Painesville Organization Executive Director. We were out meeting with business owners to discuss the upcoming streetscape construction project scheduled for this summer.
I learned a great deal regarding streetscape projects and what it takes to prepare for a project. It seems the main theme of the day was communication. The Painesville representatives have already done a great job of communicating the details of the project with the business owners. Projects like this are enormous undertakings and have so many moving parts that they can be hard to keep under control. While city leaders and downtown folks are typically very excited about these projects, they can be very daunting for business owners and it is imperative that they are kept in the loop. In Painesville, the business owners were contacted early regarding the project and given some rough ideas what to expect. When plans were complete, business owners were visited and construction plans were reviewed in person. This gave the business owners a chance to understand the process and how it would impact them, it also gave the city and downtown representative a chance to hear property owners concerns and address any questions. This also gives the project leaders ample time to make adjustments to suit the business owners and address concerns.
Business owners were informed when the construction would take place and how it would impact them. These impacts included reduced parking, reduced store visibility, increased noise and dust and reduced customer access. By better understand when and what was taking place, business owners are better able to prepare. Preparation most often included communication with customers to make them aware of the impending construction and let them know the store would be open, or in some instances have them enter the store from the rear. Some business owners were also making plans for temporary signage, changes in lighting or valet parking.
We also discussed the importance of finding the right contractor for the project. There are plenty of horror stories from other towns where a contractor was not sensitive to the needs of business owners and communicated poorly. In one of the worst cases, this situation lead to business owners suing the city over lost revenue during construction. Finding a contractor that has experience with streetscape construction is a must. This contractor must be willing to do the project in phases and try to keep the impact on business owners to a minimum. The contractor must also be willing to communicate on nearly a daily basis to keep everyone informed on the progress of the project.
Streetscape projects can and should be a tremendous benefit for a downtown or commercial business district, but if mismanaged, can be a potential debacle. I was very appreciative of the time I spent with Jen Reed and Cathy Bieterman of Painesville. I learned a great deal about what it takes to prepare for a streetscape project and feel confident that Painesville’s project will run smoothly. As always with Main Street Communities, advice and suggestions were shared from communities that have already been through the process and Painesville will share their experience with cities going through the process down the road.
While in Spokane, Washington at the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference, I, along with many other Ohio delegates, attended a session on right-sizing. Presenter Cara Bertram, with Place Economics, conducted a survey of older industrial cities that have experienced significant population change over the last 40 years. Cleveland, Youngstown, Dayton and Cincinnati were 4 of the 20 cities selected for the survey.
We expected answers and concrete models working in other cities that we could bring back to Ohio. Instead, we learned that there currently are no success stories. The issue of vacant properties and low population has only begun to be documented and the idea of rightsizing, or the process of reshaping physical urban fabric to meet the needs of current and anticipated populations, is only a working theory. We discovered that dramatic population loss is being experienced across the nation, not just in older industrial cities, but also in Texas, where army bases have vacated, and also in Niagara Falls, NY where they are about to lose their city status along with a significant reduction in federal funds . While a few facts remain constant, such as decreased population, vacant buildings, and economic decline, the available resources change dramatically from city to city and also state to state. Essentially, Ohio needs to find creative ways to solve rightsizing issues through our own resources and funding sources because a national model is not coming any time soon.
Two Ohio cities, Sandusky and Painesville, have decided to create disincentives by using penalties to nudge people and companies to make decisions that expand the tax base. Both cities have created vacant property registries. The ordinance requires owners of vacant properties to sign a registry. Part of the registry requires that the property owner indicates who the lawful owner of the property is and provide the contact information for that owner, or in the case of out of town owners, to provide the local contact for the person acting as the owner’s agent. The property owner is then required to submit a plan for leasing the property, selling the property or developing the property. The ordinance also requires the property owner to keep the property safe and secure and maintain the property in accordance to local standards. As stated in the purpose of the Painesville ordinance, “(t)he purpose of this ordinance is to establish a program for identifying and registering vacant residential and commercial buildings; to determining the responsibilities of owners of vacant buildings and structures; and to speed the rehabilitation of the vacant buildings. Shifting the cost burden from the general citizenry to the owners of the blighted buildings will be the result of this ordinance.” The key to this statement is “shifting the cost from the general citizenry to the owners of the blighted building.” A dilapidated downtown building affects the whole city.
On a statewide level, the Ohio Development Services Agency has created the Ohio Vacant Facilities Fund to create reuse incentives for vacant buildings while investing in local businesses and creating jobs. An employer will receive $500 in grant funds for every new full-time position created in eligible facilities. The position must last at least one year before funds will be distributed. Funds can be used for acquisition, construction, enlargement, improvement, or equipment of the facility. The fund has been allocated $2 million through August 2015 and will begin accepting pre-certification requests November 26. Over the next two years, the fund has the ability to create up to 4,000 jobs.
The program can be used by all scales of employers to fill both big-boxes and main street storefronts. For example, a bakery opens in a downtown. They create 4 jobs after opening. After 1 year, they are eligible for $2000, which could be used to reinvest in their equipment to meet their growing business needs.
Employers should submit a pre-certification request form, available from the Ohio Development Services Agency’s website http://development.ohio.gov/cs/cs_ovff.htm. The request must be submitted prior to occupying the vacant facility or increasing employment in order to verify eligibility and reserve funds. All for-profit businesses are eligible, while non-profit and governments are not eligible. The building must be 75% or more unoccupied and available for use in trade or business for no less than 12 months. If the building is not occupied or construction is not complete, then construction must be at least 85% or more complete and able to be lawfully occupied with a certificate of occupancy. Also, the employer must increase employment above the Base Employment Threshold.
For more information and pre-certification request applications, please visit the agency’s website: http://development.ohio.gov/cs/cs_ovff.htm, or contact the Office of Redevelopment at email@example.com or call 614-995-2292.
 For more information on rightsizing and a full list of all 20 cities, the report in its entirety can be found on Place Economics’ website at http://www.placeeconomics.com/services/rightsizing.
 This excerpt is from the article “The Price of Vacant Property” written by Jeff Siegler and can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Revitalize Ohio.
If you missed the vacant property workshop or you’d like to review the materials, you can find them all below.
- Sandusky Vacant Property Ordinance
- Vacant/Abandoned Building Evaluation Form
- Commercial/Industrial Vacant Building Plan