Parkersburg Urban Renewal change stalls before council

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg City Councilman J.R. Carpenter, right, expresses his opposition to changing the membership of the Urban Renewal Authority from all nine council members to one council member and six appointees as Council President Mike Reynolds listens during a meeting of the Committee of the Whole Tuesday in the executive conference room on the second floor of the Municipal Building.

PARKERSBURG — A proposal to revamp Parkersburg’s Urban Renewal Authority was rejected in committee then tabled by council following heated debate Tuesday evening.

Council resolved into the Committee of the Whole, a less formal body consisting of all nine members, to discuss shifting the authority’s membership from the full council to a seven-member body with one councilman and six appointees as the last item on Tuesday’s agenda. That followed 8-1 votes approving the final reading of an ordinance transferring property to the Municipal Building Commission for construction of a new fire station at West Virginia and Emerson avenues and the first reading of an ordinance approving the purchase of a Smithfield Street house to facilitate replacement of a failed retaining wall.

After a five-minute recess, the Committee of the Whole moved from council chambers to the executive conference room to talk about changing the makeup of the Urban Renewal Authority. Since its establishment in 1971, the membership has been all nine council representatives.

“We’re the only one in the state of West Virginia that uses their council members,” Councilman John Reed said.

The proposed resolution would have left one council representative on the authority. The other six — state code says a URA consists of five to seven members — would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by council, with three coming from the banking, real estate or development/planning communities.

Reed said that approach is used by many other cities, and he cited successes over the years in Charleston with the Town Center Mall or Wheeling with its civic center as examples of authorities that utilized the talents of the business community.

“We haven’t seen a major project” with the existing format, he said. “So let’s give it a try.”

Reed said council can still acquire and demolish individual blighted properties, which is most of what the URA does now. Changing the membership could result in fresh ideas and additional funding, he said.

Council President Mike Reynolds, who has chaired the URA for the last six years, supported the move.

“We should be doing bigger things,” he said, pointing to amenities like a concert hall while lamenting the authority’s inability to get a housing initiative off the ground. “There’s so many things we need that an Urban Renewal Authority with plenty of money could make happen.”

Councilman J.R. Carpenter said any large-scale project officials are hoping for can come before the authority as it’s currently constituted and questioned council ceding power to unelected appointees.

“The idea of bankers, real estate agents outweighing your City Council is the most asinine idea I’ve ever heard,” he said.

City Attorney Joe Santer said acquisitions of property and development plans approved by the proposed authority would still have to come before council for final approval. Addressing Carpenter’s concern that the appointees would not be liable for ethics violations, Santer said members of boards also face penalties from the West Virginia Ethics Commission.

Reed said tapping the resource of talented people who “do this every day for a living” could pay bigger dividends than what council has been able to do. Councilman Jeff Fox asked what was stopping those individuals from pursuing such projects now, and Reed said the city and the URA have abilities private industry does not.

Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl said she would prefer to have three council members on the new authority instead of one, but either way, she thought it would help to have the politics of council out of the authority. For whatever reason, she said, this council has discussed its desire to move housing initiatives forward but made little progress.

“We’ve done nothing with those properties that we’ve torn down,” she said.

Councilman Eric Barber said he believes that is the fault of Mayor Tom Joyce, calling efforts to remove slum and blight “dead in the water” after being kickstarted by the previous administration. Discussions of housing initiatives end in “vague promises,” he said.

Joyce said the process of acquiring and demolishing blighted properties is complex, as is utilizing federal housing money.

“This is the first I’m hearing about” the issues Barber raised, he said. “I’ve always treated you pretty fairly when a lot of people didn’t. I’m personally offended.”

After the meeting, Joyce said he doesn’t mind being questioned or criticized but did not appreciate that Barber “waited ’til he had an audience at a public meeting to cast stones.”

Barber was referring to an initiative started by former Mayor Bob Newell and continued by his appointed replacement, Jimmy Colombo, to raze numerous dilapidated structures with the assistance of two $250,000 lines of credit from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. Due to the length of time it can take to acquire such properties, that method of financing was found inefficient and city officials decided to fund the second half with city money in 2017, the first year of Joyce and the current council’s terms.

Joyce said demolitions continue, with two structures being razed Tuesday and three more recently approved by the Building Enforcement Agency. The 2019-20 budget allocated $160,000 for demolitions, he said.

Councilman Dave McCrady said he hadn’t yet heard about who might serve on the new-look URA. Reed said city officials had gotten some calls of interest, but noted the state code requiring members to be residents of the city could limit the pool from which they choose.

A motion to rise and report to council and recommend adoption of the resolution failed in a 5-4 vote, with Kuhl, Reed, Reynolds and Councilman Zach Stanley in favor. After Santer pointed out that that not only rejected the resolution but kept council in session as the Committee of the Whole, the group voted 8-1, with Barber opposed, to rise and report as council.

Barber then made a motion to table the resolution until the next council meeting, which passed unanimously.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.