The Times West Virginian

May 7, 2014

Fairmont to develop plan for BAD buildings

By Colleen S. Good
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — City representatives and community members came together for the Fairmont BAD Buildings Team Kick-Off meeting Tuesday. The meeting was held from 6-8 p.m. at the County Commission Chambers in the J. Harper Meredith Building in Fairmont.

Fairmont was one of eight communities to be awarded a $10,000 technical assistance grant by the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center (WVBAC). The grant is a part of the center’s Brownfields, Abandoned & Dilapidated (BAD) buildings program, which is funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. It will provide Fairmont city employees and community members with the tools to develop a comprehensive survey and plan to deal with BAD buildings.

This kick-off meeting was the first step in that process.

Luke Elser, project manager with the Northern Brownfields Assistance Center, is working as the BAD Building program coordinator.

Elser facilitated the kick-off meeting, first taking time to define the kinds of properties the BAD Building program is designed to deal with.

“When I say a ‘bad building,’ I mean a brownfield property, an abandoned building, a dilapidated building, a vacant property, a property that’s falling in on itself, or even just a vacant lot,” Elser said.

Elser led a discussion with community members on the impacts these properties have and the problems they cause for the community. Among the discussed problems were: reduction of adjacent property values, properties posing a fire hazard, loss of future residents, the fact that BAD buildings can be costly to rehabilitate or fix, properties posing a threat to public health, pushing out future development and a loss of sense of community.

Elser talked specifically about the economic burden posed by structures that have burned down, but not been cleaned up afterward.

“Nationally, on average, one burn-out property that just has been left like that lowers within a one-mile radius the property values of every other property by 20-30 percent. Which is millions of dollars anywhere,” Elser said.

Next, the group discussed what challenges they would have to face in trying to tackle the BAD buildings problem. These challenges included inventorying of the BAD buildings in Fairmont, finding ownership information on the properties, resolving legal complications, and dealing with uncooperative property owners.

One of the difficulties Fairmont City Manager Jay Rogers discussed was that the city has less recourse when dealing with out-of-state BAD building property owners, which Rogers estimated is “probably 80-90 percent of what we have.”

The group also discussed how they saw the future of Fairmont, if the program were a success. Participants wanted to see a thriving downtown with services and amenities for the young and old, inviting neighborhoods, safe communities, good parks and green spaces, great transportation, and the higher education institutions integrated with the community downtown.

But Elser said it was important that they come up with tangible next steps, to keep the momentum going with the next meeting.

“How do we get there in 10 years?” Elser said. Elser said it’s important that they avoid getting overwhelmed, and work on developing a plan, starting with the process of figuring out how to develop a BAD Buildings inventory, including a thorough assessment and prioritization of sites.

After the BAD Buildings inventory is completed and prioritized and owners for BAD building sites are identified, the team will have to consider the best way to proceed with dealing with the sites.

“So there’s a whole menu of choices, of different approaches that the city can take, that local volunteers can take, that businesses can take,” Elser said. “We’re going to be looking at them on a case-by-case basis, and saying, ‘This might actually work in Fairmont, let’s do this,’ ‘this won’t work in Fairmont, we’re going to ignore that,’ and ‘this one might, let’s go and research it.’”

Before the inventory can even be created, a BAD Buildings team made up of interested citizens and city representatives will go through a training on how to create that inventory. That training will occur next month, at a time and date to be determined later.

Anyone interested in getting involved in the BAD Buildings team can email Elser at Luke.Elser@mail.wvu.edu to get added to the mailing list, or just to learn more.

And while the BAD Building program grant runs only through Dec. 31 of this year, Elser said that he and the WVBAC will continue to offer free support to Fairmont, “as long as you want us to.”

“This is not a one year project, or a one year solution,” Elser said. “We’re really just at the first few baby steps.”

Email Colleen S. Good at cgood@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.