Downtown needs more momentum

While living in Atlanta in the early 1980s, I read an interview with a very prominent real estate developer named John Portman.

When asked where the next Atlanta “growth corridor” would be, Portman smiled and said, “Wherever I say it will be.”

Anyone who knew John Portman would know that he wasn’t bragging; just stating a fact. Hundreds of developers simply found out where he was building and then built near him. That’s how commercial development often works. It’s why a Taco Bell builds next to a Burger King next to a McDonald’s. Business begets business. It’s momentum.

However, the other end of developmental momentum is what many communities fall into. Downtown Parkersburg has the challenge of creating enough developmental thrust to propel it into growth. And several basic issues downtown must address for it to gain “developmental momentum.”

First is the need for additional, quality downtown housing. I have mentioned before that downtown housing is in high demand with a waiting list at most places. This will only increase as we experience the oil and gas boom, followed by the downstream businesses that will come.

There are usually three “legs” to community development: Where to live, where to work and where to shop. Once housing is addressed, much of the “third leg” of retail will soon follow.

There is, however, one big issue that can prevent the whole development process from ever moving into true upward momentum. Who is going to develop something first?

Currently, there are some really great things happening in downtown Parkersburg: Point Park, the continued growth of Public Debt and Camden Clark, new facilities for Highmark, Matheny Motors, Jan Dils, WVU-P and magistrate court. There are several new restaurants and new apartments (Shout out to Charlie Abdella and the great work he’s doing). While I’m sure I left many out, I want to focus on those who could be involved but haven’t; owners of long vacant buildings, who are not doing what’s necessary to rent or sell them.

The hard fact is if you have vacant property in a downtown for a long period of time, chances are it’s of your own doing. And, frankly, it can be remedied by rethinking your position. It is my observation that most vacant property in downtown is either overpriced or substandard in quality, or both.

Now I understand many slumlords can make great money, but it’s at a cost of their neighbors. I also understand not all vacant building owners are slumlords, but I do know that many properties are not being developed because they are overpriced while the owner is playing the “Mexican Standoff” game of not being willing to go first.

Here’s an easy test to see if a property is overpriced. Let’s tax it at the value of the list price the owner put on it. Surely, if the owner thinks the property is worth it, then why would they have qualms on paying that tax rate?

Do you think I’ll get any willing owners? We’ll see. Come see me. I’ll be in the lounge.

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Cecil Childress is general manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel and chairman of Downtown PKB.