Heritage Ohio staff and about 40 Ohioans, including Main Street Managers, and downtown revitalization advocates attended the conference, hosted this year in New Orleans. Having just completed 5 days of inspirational and educational sessions, I thought I would share my top ten things learned, in no particular order:
1. The JOBS Act of 2012 allows for locavesting and crowd funding, providing more options for financing businesses to create jobs. There are many more platforms than I realized, and they are all slightly different, so finding the right match is important.
2. The Entrepreneur – the term is thrown around so much we’ve begun to lose sight of who we mean. It can be anyone: a car mechanic, a gardener, a knitter, a computer geek. Think small, not so big. Make your downtown welcoming to anyone with a business idea; create an environment of support where business can thrive.
3. Sponsorship – believe in the value of your program and its activities. Develop relationships with your sponsors with as much thought to the follow-up as to the ask.
4. Streetscape projects can be challenging for downtown businesses. Effective communication, frequent progress meetings and a creative attitude will get the community through the process.
5. Business Enhancement Committees can create a Recruitment Manual to give them structure month after month to make the best use of your market analysis data and help you find the new businesses that belong in your community. Court your new business candidates.
6. Fundraising isn’t so hard when everyone is able to share the story of your downtown. Use your revitalization statistics. Tailor your story to the listener’s style.
7. What is trending in 2013? Diversity, young talent, young women, deliberate spending, shortened commutes, health and wellness, main stream technology.
8. Transportation – Reduce our car-centric decisions. Walkable communities are the future. Healthy and hip, they attract the young people, your town’s future.
9. Millennials (under 30 yrs.) – get them on your board and committees, or you may go the way of the dinosaurs.
10. New Orleans is a party city.
Thousands of communities across the country are doing creative work in revitalizing their downtowns and neighborhood commercial centers. You too can be part of this amazing process, it’s all about the can-do attitude.
I am fortunate to work in a field that allows me to spend a great deal of my time visiting commercial business districts and meeting with the individuals who strive to preserve and revitalize those districts. They spend countless hours marketing the district through social media and elaborate and laborious events. Money is spent on marketing and district maps to try and attract more people to visit. Committees create business and building inventories to develop a greater understanding of what the district contains. Fundraisers and membership campaigns carry on in support all of these activities. I continue to be amazed at the amount of work being accomplished in these communities where revitalization has been made a top priority and the difference that is being made by a group of committed individuals.
Yet in district after district, the upper floors remain an enigma, a vestige of a quaint era when people used to travel vertically by stairs. First floor space is a priority in downtown as everyone wants to have retail shops to attract visitors and avoid appearing to have a vacancy problem. Upper floors are used for storage, pigeon habitats or district kindling. People seemed surprise when a fire occurs, yet it shouldn’t be a total surprise considering the amount of square footage in a tightly packed district full of flammable materials that goes unchecked for years. The inevitable result of any building that is not maintained is fire or structure failure, it is not a matter of if, but when.
These upper floors are far from a liability though. They are opportunity disguised as storage. Earning income from 1/2 or 1/3 of an asset makes as much sense as buying a car and removing the back seats and trunk. The cost of maintenance remains the same, but the utility is reduced dramatically. While I understand that there will be more debt, utility costs and property management fees associated with occupying the upper floors, it is still proportional and makes for a sound investment. Upper floor housing is actually a much better investment then first floor commercial when you look at typical vacancy rates. First floor commercial space is harder to fill than upper floor housing, which in turn costs the property owner more money in lost rent, turnover costs and marketing fees. A typical property owner must maintain the building systems and exterior with income from one floor instead of spreading the cost over multiple tenants. While any investment is a risk, I believe property owners would find upper floor housing to be a safe bet and may find that their municipality has a plethora of tools and or incentives available to assist with the process.
The benefits of upper floor housing are tremendous and revitalization organizations would do well to make this a priority when it comes time to strategic planning. Upper floor residents generate considerably more income for property owners, providing them with the resources to maintain and improve their buildings. Downtown residents spend five times more in the district then downtown workers. This is a huge benefit to all of the restaurants and retailers located within the district. Residents also give the district a vibrant and welcoming feel by creating a neighborhood ,where before there was just a shopping district or an office park.
The key to sustainable districts is multiple uses, as each use relies on the other use to survive. How many entertainment districts have dried up in previous years? Are office parks and suburbs going to attract the next generation of workers and residents? Mixed use districts have been around since the advent of cities and we would be wise to make sure our downtowns continue to offer every use.
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
Today, Heritage Ohio co-hosted along with Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area, our 2nd Annual Appalachia Heritage Luncheon at the Statehouse. The purpose of the luncheon was to introduce successful projects to Ohio legislators and to show them how cultural programs are having a positive impact on the Appalachia economy. Thirteen speakers shared success stories ranging from Main Street to historic tax credits to singing the Paw-Paw song. It was inspiring.
The stories of success can be applied anywhere in Ohio. Using the cultural assets in your community will help distinguish your strengths and enhance your identity, making your community more competitive in our ever-changing economy. Those places that choose to be all things to all people become so generic they have lost their soul.
The luncheon was recorded via the Ohio Channel and will be available for viewing at www.ohiochannel.org beginning 9/27/12.
Thanks go to hosts Sen. Tim Schaffer (District 31) and Jason Wilson, Director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia for their support. Thanks also goes to the wonderful insiders tour provided by Bob Loversidge, architect of the statehouse.
This event has grown in importance – watch for your invitation to a bigger event in Fall of 2013.
To paraphrase eloquent speaker Julie Zickefoose: Appalachia’s wealth is on top of the shale.
I’m in London this week, and miraculously there is not rain in the forecast the entire time I’m here! Part of my vacation assignment was to write something on our blog about my trip. On the long flight from Dallas to London, I wondered what exactly I was going to write about. London offers a lot interesting topics to cover over preservation, revitalization, or whatever else flitted into my sleep-deprived head. But once I landed and made my way to Tower Hill and my hotel, my mind wandered into familiar territory for preservationists: Why does Europe seem to be more capable of reusing its older buildings and resisting the urge to tear them down?
These are more musings to myself than hardened fact, but here are a few thoughts I’ve had over the past few days:
- Some people back home say Americans are too progress oriented, but so are Londoners. Looking just around the Tower Hill area, there are several skyscrapers and plenty of modern buildings. But there are also plenty of older buildings as well. Some have been completely remodeled, while others look virtually untouched since they were constructed over a century ago. I think many of the banking sector employees across from my hotel would definitively say London is progress-minded, just like themselves. But I also think they have an appreciation for the past that is part of their cultural identities, both the the native Britons and the many foreigners who now call London home.
- On the topic of national/community identity, it is really interesting how Americans are unique in this realm, and I do think this may factor into our views of our own communities. I remember long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I was having a conversation with a Belgian girl. She asked me where my family was from. Like any American, I rattled off the list of countries where my ancestors hailed from and she immediately scoffed at the notion that I was anything other than an American. What she wanted to know was if I was from Ohio, or did my family lives somewhere else in The US. She hated that Americans tried to keep their heritage attached to places other than America, Europeans would never do such a thing (her opinion). She does make a good point though. Why do we as Americans hold multiple cultural heritages? Many of us have not met our family members who emigrated and came to America. Even more of us have never visited the country of family origin. But it remains important to us. [Pure speculation here] I wonder if/when Americans do embrace being “just American” with no ethic hyphens attached, will Americans develop a deeper appreciation for the cultural heritage of America? The buildings that defined our golden ages? There’s no way of knowing, but I think when we become “just American”, we’re going to see a growing importance in our cultural history. More than just we’re #1.
- One myth I hear frequently is “We tear our buildings down. In Europe, that doesn’t happen”. While it’s a generalization, I think it affects how American preservationists view the two worlds. Having been in London a for a little over a day, clearly things have been torn down and are going to be as the city continues to grow. A city this old has had plenty of fires, misguided development ventures (None more than those stucco and brick apartments near Hammersmith I saw off the Piccadilly line. Absolutely horrific.), and the like. We romanticize a certain period of time, have architectural styles we all love and others we wouldn’t miss. While London may have a few buildings that are a thousand years old, we have to look at how many of them survived, why, and what replaced the ones which did not. I often wonder if we, the old building lovers of America, would be so angry with old buildings being torn down if it were replaced with a building that was architecturally stunning, constructed with quality materials, and was meant to last more than 20 years? I think we would, but maybe we’d be a little less angry at what the suggested replacement was.
Now I’ve left out a lot of this discussion. Politics, funding, economic conditions, etc. Preservation and reuse of historic buildings is an amazingly complex issue, but we should be fortunate enough to be able to tackle it. So, what do you see as the most important root causation to our preservation issues in America? Let’s us know below in the comments section.
I’ll be share plenty of photos of my visit to London on Heritage Ohio’s Facebook page. Look for them to start appearing in the next few days.
The Ohio Department of Development recently released the pre-assesment worksheet for the Discretionary Targets of Opportunity for Downtown Revitalization Grant. The Discretionary Grant Program provides funding for “target of opportunity” community development, housing, emergency shelter and special projects and activities that do not fit within the structure of existing programs and to provide supplemental resources to resolve immediate and unforeseen needs. Please find the worksheet HERE
I am continually amazed at how many Ohio towns suffer from a lack of parking. What is even more surprising is that almost every town that suffers from a lack of parking also suffers from a dearth of successful businesses. How can this be? The answer is, is that it cant. Parking has become the boogie man of downtown revitalization and takes the blame for every other short coming in the district. Don’t get me wrong, parking is important to downtown and necessary for growth, but so few communities actually suffer from this problem, and those that do, are happy to have the problem. It means they are drawing a crowd and crowds are good for downtown. Some of the best downtown in the state have inadequate public parking and even fewer have parking decks. They have a draw and people are willing to walk for a business worth visiting. Think about when people visit a mall. No one thinks twice about walking a couple of hundred yards to get to their destination. The same happens when a downtown has a signature event. People park blocks away and don’t feel put out about walking five minutes, because they have a destination they deem worth visiting. Parking is not a problem; parking is far too often an excuse for a lack of good business. Blaming the lack of parking for an empty downtown is like saying a Jonas Brothers concert would have been better if there were only more seats available. In no other facet of business do we cite a lack of supply as the reason for the lack of demand.
Director of Revitalization