You see them in every community. Once vibrant commercial buildings become vacant, dilapidated structures and a blight to the community. What should be done about them?
Oregon council has been debating whether to pressure property owners to clean up the sites, or take it slowly and work with them to assist in development down the road.
A vacant outbuilding at K-Mart on Navarre Avenue, in particular, has been the focus of council’s discussions on the issue in the last few meetings.
Councilman Dennis Walendzak a few weeks ago wanted to know why semis were parked in the K-Mart parking lot, saying it looked like a truck stop. Discussion eventually turned to the rusted outbuilding that used to be a K-Mart auto service center.
“It needs dressing up a bit,” said Councilman Jim Seaman at a council meeting on Monday.
City Administrator Mike Beazley said he had “positive” discussions last week with the manager of K-Mart and the owner of the property in New York.
“I’m expecting something to take place there that might include some paint,” said Beazley.
Councilman Terry Reeves asked whether the building was still a division of K-Mart.
Beazley said he wasn’t sure who was responsible for the building.
“In discussing it with local officials, there was some ambiguity about who was actually responsible for it. That wasn’t my concern. We just wanted to get it taken care of,” said Beazley. The manager and landlord said they would check to see who was responsible, he added.
“They agreed it was not good for either to have it remain [in its current condition],” said Beazley.
Reeves said council should stop “harping” on the problem and give K-Mart time to make improvements.
“We value K-Mart as a business here in Oregon,” said Reeves. “That K-Mart there was probably on one of the chopping blocks when they closed the one on Manhattan and the other ones. I don’t think we want to make it too tough on them so that it makes it unfeasible for them to stay in this area. We’ve already lost Banner Mattress. They’re trying to look for a place. They’re looking at Oregon, but they may be going to Northwood. The thing is we don’t want to rub businesses out. We want to give them ample time to correct the problem. I don’t think we need to keep beating a horse, which we have been doing the last two to three weeks. I do understand it could be a considerable eyesore or blight, but they are a valued business in our community. I’m disappointed that we keep talking about that property. There are several other properties that need to probably be taken care of as well that are vacant.”
“When we contacted them, that wasn’t the style at all, to beat up on them,” said Mayor Mike Seferian. “It was more to work with them to see if there was anything we could do to help them fill that building.”
Reeves said he didn’t doubt that the administration was working with the company.
“I’m talking about us as a council,” said Reeves. “We keep going off on certain things on the Navarre Avenue corridor. There’s a better way of doing it.”
“I guess I take a slightly different perspective on this,” said Councilman Sandy Bihn. “My question is, `Is there a way to deal with large big box vacant structures over a long period of time?’ When Coy School was closed, the school system decided to tear it down. It’s green space. It’s more attractive. I was just listing the number structures, including the one at K-Mart, that have been vacant for long periods of time, that become blights to the community, and I get concerned about them. Blockbuster is now gone, and FoodTown, and Banner Mattress. Some of these buildings become older and not as competitive in terms of being desirable for someone to move into them. How do we, as a community, deal with those kinds of situations and how do other communities handle this so we know what the rules are and we apply them uniformly?”
“Some of these problems have been around for a while,” said Seferian. “Mr. Beazley and I have taken the approach to talk to these people if there is something we can do to help versus strong arming them into situations. We know most of those businesses are hurting and that’s why they let some things go. We want to be careful not to send the wrong message out to people that we’re the bullies, because we’re not. We’re out to help these people. Are there tools out there? Yes, Council could create such tools, but may not want to. You have to be careful what you create because you put up another hurdle. We are already known to be a somewhat business un-friendly community and we want to change that. So we wouldn’t want to move backwards. We’ve been going over a lot of the rules, a lot of building codes to try to make us more user-friendly. If you create a tool to force someone to do something who is struggling, just because you have a tool, still doesn’t mean they will do it. You have to fight them to put it into action. So we’re trying to take the pleasant approach.”
Bihn asked whether the city should have policies in place that address buildings that have been vacant for several years.
“Is there some point in which it becomes non usable and, if it’s in the main business corridor, in particular, how do you deal with that? Or are we just stuck?” asked Bihn.
Beazley said the best way to address the issue of vacant buildings is to find new uses for them.
“There’s not a lot of easy tools available,” said Beazley. “The challenge is the reuse of a specific type of property. I have had good meetings with realtors and businesses over the last few weeks. That’s really kind of the focus - to find new uses for those buildings. I find that’s the best tool to use.”