Demo funding considered

PARKERSBURG – The city could end up needing to borrow less than the million dollars Mayor Bob Newell called for to raze dozens of dilapidated structures.

In April, Newell announced a multi-part proposal to aggressively reduce slum and blight in the city, including borrowing $1 million from local banks to tear down more than 80 vacant, run-down houses and potentially acquire some of the properties. The money would have been repaid over five years, diverting $200,000 each year from the $1 million the city has been allocating annually to paving projects.

While other parts of the plan – including business and occupation tax credits, a vacant property registry with a $100-a-month fee and the creation of new assistant fire inspector positions – have come before City Council, Newell said city officials are still looking at additional options for the demolition and acquisition funding. These include getting low-interest loans through the West Virginia Housing Development Fund and enlisting the aid of the West Virginia Army National Guard.

Councilman Mike Reynolds, chairman of the city’s Urban Renewal Authority, said he’s eager to see eyesore structures that present a safety hazard come down, but he believes it’s good to take the time to find the most economical ways to do so.

“I’m in favor of tearing down the houses, but I’m certainly in favor of looking at all of the options,” he said.

The West Virginia Housing Development Fund is interested in partnering with the city on its initiative, City Development Director Rickie Yeager said. Parkersburg could borrow up to $150,000 a year from the fund, then pay the money back over five years with an interest rate that starts at zero in the first year and rises by 1 percent each of the subsequent years.

“That would be cheaper than a primary bank loan,” Yeager said.

Parkersburg officials are also interested in an initiative like a 2012 effort in which the City of Huntington partnered with the West Virginia Army National Guard and the state Division of Highways to demolish 54 structures and clear the sites in 28 days. According to an article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the city and its urban renewal authority spent about $340,000 on the program, but officials said it would have cost more than half a million dollars and taken several years to do the work without the other agencies’ participation.

“That would be a huge cost-savings for the city,” Yeager said.

More savings could come from the actions of people who own some of the property on the initial demolition list, Newell said.

“Since we’ve put that out, we’ve had contact from some of the owners,” he said.

Some have sold their properties or demolished the structures on their own, while others have submitted plans of action to address the issues, the mayor said.

City employees often have to board up vacant houses and mow the lawns, and the structures sometimes become sites of drug activity or targets of arsonists. The city may try to acquire certain pieces of property that could be redeveloped as a way to recoup some of those expenses, Newell said.

In recent years, the city has torn down 10 to 12 houses a year, which Newell said doesn’t make a dent in the problem.

“By the time we get through them, we’re going to have another pile,” he said.

That’s why he’s proposing tearing down so many at once.

“My hope was to target all of those at one time,” Newell said. “I think there’s a likelihood that if we really want to attack them all soon, we’ll have to do some (local borrowing).”