MARIETTA - Visiting downtown Marietta on Wednesday, Velma Kee noted a difference between the atmosphere on Front Street and the 100 block of Greene Street, just around the corner.
"It looks desolate," Kee, who splits her time between Florida, Texas and Gandeeville, W.Va., said as she looked at Greene Street, where three of the five buildings on the north side of Ohio Street are vacant and displaying various signs of wear and tear. "It's kind of a depressing feeling."
"This is great down here," Kee, 71, said turning to Front Street, where several people were walking up and down the sidewalk and visiting shops.
Photo by Robb DeCamp
A motorcyclist rides along the 100 block of Greene Street in Marietta, past buildings with boarded up windows and vacancies.
Owners of vacant and worn buildings in the 100 and 200 blocks of Greene Street are aware work needs to be done, pointing out that it takes both time and money. But with the area serving as the first glimpse of downtown to people coming from Interstate 77, some wonder what kind of impression it's creating.
"Since the majority of our tourists come from the interstate exit, that's the first two blocks of downtown Marietta that they see, and it's not the best image," said City Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, an ex officio member of the Marietta-Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau and owner of the Levee House property on the levee just off Greene Street.
Noland said it's not just the vacant buildings that contribute to the situation. The city has not been able to afford to add decorative lighting as it has in other downtown areas, where those posts are adorned with flower baskets and flags placed by ReStore Marietta.
"It's as if they're a forgotten two blocks - but they're the entrance to our downtown," Noland said.
Roof repairs are under way at 133 Greene St., where the Four Seasons Bar was located until it closed last year following the death of its operator. Faded paint, different colored sections of brick and boarded windows are visible on the outside, but everything can't be addressed at once, said building owner Tina Thomas.
"It takes a lot of cash to fix these buildings," she said. "I'll do the work when I get a tenant."
Like 133 Greene St., the single-story brick building at 123 Greene is owned by Thomas and seeking a tenant. It served as a temporary home for the Boys and Girls Club of Washington County a few years ago. Next door to that are 119 and 121 Greene St. The former is up for leasing from Silverheels Property Management and most recently served as the headquarters for the Washington County Republican Party during the 2012 election. The latter has a sign on the door reading Marietta Industries LLC and windows covered by curtains. A number for that company could not be located. Across the street, at 128 Greene, stands a small building with a wooden exterior. Once the location of his father's barbershop, owner Jerry Wynn said the building's been used as storage in recent years. Wynn, 79, intends to sell it but hasn't been able to do a lot of upkeep lately due to health concerns.
"I'll probably do some repair on it if I don't sell it to somebody," he said.
In the 200 block, a building owned by Residential Home for the Developmentally Disabled LLC stands empty between the Locker Room Sports Bar and an apartment building owned by Mitcham Group LLC. Representatives of RHDD did not return calls seeking comment, but city officials said the not-for-profit entity moved out due to expensive repairs that needed to be made.
Roberta Casto, 62, who lives in one of the apartments next door, said she's concerned about the deterioration of the building.
"Now we just sit and wait until it goes 'kaboom,'" she said.
Mayor Joe Matthews said the city's Building Enforcement Board got a complaint about peeling stucco at the former Four Seasons building, but it was determined there was no safety issue. Otherwise, he's heard no complaints about the vacant buildings along Greene Street.
"I would love to fill up every building, but, you know, businesses come and businesses go," he said. "I think we're pretty vibrant compared to downtowns in a lot of areas."
Mitcham Group owner Wendy Myers said it is a concern when buildings in an area look vacant and uncared for. But her company hasn't had any trouble filling the five apartments at 223 Greene St.
"People just love being downtown," she said. "The interiors are pretty great."
Myers admitted the exterior of her company's building could use some work too.
"We have some peeling paint that we're going to be addressing this summer," she said.
Myers said the Greene Street buildings' proximity to the road and lack of a buffer from the river explains some of the wear on the structures' facades.
Steve Medley owns Cole's Tire and Supply, which has been at 205 Greene St. since 1958. He said he would like to see the area cleaned up but he's pleased with the location.
"Our traffic is always good; our business is always good," he said.
Medley noted one challenge to repairing or improving property along Greene are building code regulations. When a building he owned at 207 Greene St. with upstairs apartments burned down more than a decade ago, he could not rebuild it for use as a residential structure. Now it's a warehouse where tires and other items are stored.
Help on the way?
One owner of a Greene Street building contacted the city about getting assistance with repairing the structure, Marietta development director Andy Coleman said. The only option they had to offer was application for a property tax deferral through the Community Reinvestment Area established in 2007.
Only one business has taken advantage of the program, which allows successful applicants to defer up to 100 percent of the property tax payments on improvements of $5,000 or more for up to 12 years.
"What we need to do is market it," said Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, whose ward includes the downtown area.
Coleman said his department is preparing a business startup guide to tell entrepreneurs about the CRA and other useful information. Noland said the guide should include directions on how to apply for federal and state historic preservation tax credits, which can save an owner the tax equivalent of 25 percent or more of their restoration.
Noland also wants to see the city's website link to real estate companies to showcase properties to potential buyers outside the immediate area.
In addition, the city is projecting a 3 percent increase in Community Development Block Grant funds in the coming year, which could go toward the decorative lighting in the area. If those poles went up, ReStore Marietta would step in with flower baskets for them, said Dave Schramm, president of the nonprofit organization that works to promote the downtown area.
Schramm said Greene Street is definitely in ReStore's purview, but the group is still relatively young with limited resources. That should change when ReStore achieves its original goal and Marietta receives its designation as a Main Street community, something expected to happen this year.
"That opens us up to resources nationwide," Schramm said, referring to grants as well as planning and logistical support.