Newell plan targets blight

PARKERSBURG – Mayor Bob Newell asked City Council to commit $1 million to raze 85 houses and acquire property as part of a wide-ranging plan to address slum and blight in the city.

“There are 85 structures that need to be demolished immediately,” Newell said during council’s meeting as the Urban Renewal Authority Tuesday in council chambers.

The mayor proposed borrowing the money from local banks and paying it back over five years by diverting $200,000 a year from the $1 million allocated to milling and paving in recent years. It’s one of 14 steps he said the administration and council can take to not only eliminate dilapidated housing but encourage renovation of vacant structures and construction of new housing.

Among them is a $100-a-month fee on any residential structure that has sat vacant for more than a year. Newell said it would go into effect a year after approval by council and would not apply to houses that are being maintained.

“We need to motivate owners that have left vacant properties to sit and rot in the city,” he said.

Newell said he’s not concerned about diverting money from milling and paving, because the city gets a good deal on its main contract and has other funding sources for road repairs.

Despite complaints about potholes after this year’s unusually cold winter, Newell said the city will recover without a problem.

“I’m not at all concerned about the streets,” he said. “The asphalt plants open tomorrow (Wednesday), and people will start to see improvements.”

The city usually tears down 10 to 12 houses a year.

“By the time we do the few that we’re able to do each year, there’s that many more that need to be done,” Newell said.

Approving the $1 million to demolish houses and for URA to obtain some properties is the foundation of the effort, he said.

“If council doesn’t want to do that, then there’s no sense in going any further. We’re done,” Newell said.

To speed the process along, the mayor said the city will now seek bids for a one-year contract for demolition services based on square footage, rather than taking bids on individual projects. The city already gets similar one-year bids for supplies like salt and gravel.

“I know other companies that don’t get it are going to squall for a year, but hopefully next year they’ll come back with a penny or two less” on their bid, Newell said.

He asked council to consider raising the bid limit for demolition projects to $25,000 from $15,000, meaning the city could solicit quotes on any work the contracted demolition company couldn’t get to if the job was under $25,000.

Councilwoman Kim Coram said she liked the mayor’s proposals but asked what the next step would be after demolition.

“We’re going to tear a lot of stuff down,” she said. “What about a plan to get something back up there?”

Newell said council as the Urban Renewal Authority can decide if there’s value in obtaining some of the properties.

However, Newell said demolition is only part of the solution to slum and blight. He gave council a list of 175 vacant houses, 85 of which need to be torn down, but 90 of which could be salvaged.

“Not every house on there is a bad house,” he said.

Newell is proposing an elimination of the business and occupation tax on contractors renovating vacant homes and those building new multi-family housing. He also wants B&O rebates and grants for landlords and contractors renovating properties or building new multi-family housing.

The mayor said he’s been in talks with local businesses and foundations about contributing to a fund to provide some of these incentives.

Newell wants to spread enforcement and investigation of complaints to the police and fire departments, including adopting legislation allowing the fire department to cite property owners for fire hazards.

Council members seemed receptive to the mayor’s proposals.

“It’s certainly a great item,” said Councilman Mike Reynolds, chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority. “I’m excited about it.”

Prior to the meeting, council’s Finance Committee unanimously voted to send a lease agreement for the planned new south Parkersburg branch of the Parkersburg & Wood County Public Library at Blizzard Park to the full council for consideration. No action was taken on a request from the Mid-Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross for $5,000 to support emergency and disaster services.

A regular City Council meeting followed the Urban Renewal Authority session and was over in about 12 minutes. Council, with Reynolds absent, unanimously approved items to receive and file the state tax commissioner’s approval of its levy estimates, lay the levy for the upcoming fiscal year and approve the Community Development Block Grant and HOME budgets referred from the Finance Committee.