It’s time to take back your Main Street. Time to fight to restore it. Time to fight for its safe return. I know Main Street hasn’t been stolen, it hasn’t been whisked away in the middle of the night. It isn’t really “missing”.
You too, can attest to this. You’ve probably driven past it recently and have some confidence that, yes- it still exists. The physical space that occupies the center of town is, in fact- not missing, but the important pieces are. Those pieces are the buildings. Main Street without the buildings is just another stupid road surround by parking.
I’m not talking about the buildings that burned down or even the ones that were demolished over the years, though that too, is a debacle (and a whole new blogpost rant).
I’m talking about the buildings that are sitting empty, falling apart, being used as garbage storage, and roach motels.
I’m talking about the buildings that aren’t doing a damn thing to make your Main Street come alive.
They still occupy space on your Main Street, but currently, their presence is a detraction and is doing nothing to make your town better. Those buildings represent one of the biggest threats to your town and ignoring them is no longer an option.
Main Street is the heart of every community and those buildings are it’s most important ones. They announce to outsiders, this is WHO WE ARE, and they remind locals that this is WHERE COME FROM.
These buildings on your Main Street:
- Were built with pride and craftsmanship
- Were built using locally sourced materials
- Reflect the origins of your town founders
- Were built to house important businesses in your city
- Operate as the central market place
- Define the center of your town
When I drive into a town, and the buildings on Main Street are falling apart, I know that the fight against apathy is being lost. I can be sure that the people in the community are suffering from a lack of esteem, I can make some safe assumptions about how well other facets of the community are functioning also. The buildings on your Main Street ARE YOU. They represent you. They are your community’s identity. And if those buildings are not representing you and your community the way you want, then it is time to go on the attack to bring them back!
Stop thinking that the owners of those buildings are just waiting around for the right tenant to show up. Stop fooling yourself into believing that those property owners are just waiting for the right price to sell.
It’s bullshit. I’ve seen a thousand examples of Main Street property owners behaving economically irrationally. They’re really not profit motivated, and if we want to move the downtown forward, we have to stop convincing ourselves that they are.
Main Street properties sit empty because:
- Someone inherited it that doesn’t want it
- Someone inherited that can’t afford to maintain it
- Someone inherited it lives out of town and has no interest
- It is stuck in a family trust
- The property is part of a larger portfolio of real estate
- The owner is using it as a tax write-off
- Current ownership is complicated–entangled and a mess
These buildings were once owned by someone that truly gave a damn. Someone that took the job of operating them seriously and saw to their maintenance and ensured good tenants occupied them. They had pride in the place. Their pride was evident in their work, in their actions, and by their names emblazoned on their facades.
An empty building no longer has a good owner and no amount of excuses for their behavior are satisfactory. These deadbeat owners are holding your community hostage. We have to stop enabling them.
By enabling these property owners to continue their delinquent behavior, your community is experiencing the following:
- Decreased property values
- Decreased income tax and sales tax in the downtown
- Diminished economic recruitment efforts
- Decreased tourism
- Diminished civic pride
- Decreased self-esteem
- And often an increase in anti-social behavior and crime
There’s no excuse for a property to sit vacant, especially the legacy buildings that occupy your Main Street.
Would you allow the house next to yours to be used only for storage?
Would you be okay if the houses across the street were falling over and the windows were all shattered?
Of course not, those houses affect your house.
Well, don’t you think the buildings that make up the heart of your community also affect you? These buildings were once the greatest source of your community’s sense of pride, now they are its greatest source of shame. This should never have been allowed to happen.
We have to stop making excuses for these owners and be serious about getting these buildings back under local control. We’ve gotta give up on hoping for better behavior. We have to use the tools of local government to hit these owners in the wallet. But no amount of incentives are going to work and I think it is safe to say, in most towns, the goodwill has long been exhausted.
Taking back Main Street means using legislation and enforcement to get these irresponsible owners to sell their buildings to someone that cares. It also means utilizing local standards to compel them to maintain their building or to replace it.
Taking back Main Street is about using the tools available to your municipality to help facilitate the transfer of ownership of the property from the hands of someone that lives out of town and doesn’t care, to someone that lives in town and does. This is not controversial. It doesn’t even require imminent domain. It’s simply enforcing the rules a city has adopted to protect its citizens and their property values. Not doing this is fiscally irresponsible, and morally unforgivable.
Until it is more expensive for the owners to let the buildings sit empty, we can’t expect change. Until the community is a pain in the ass of the owner, we can’t expect to change their behavior.
I spoke with Mayor Matt Shorraw recently for a Pod Places episode about his work in Monessen, PA.
Matt hired a code enforcement officer to get the community’s real estate problem under control and the officer covered his annual salary in fines in the first three months. Monessen is a city of 7000.
When the Fire Chief in Sandusky, Ohio pushed through vacant property legislation in 2010, the city experienced a 60% reduction in vacant property within the year. This was a safety measure that helped turn the community’s image and economics around.
Use the tools available to your city. This is the job of local government and it’s time to put it to work.
- Step up code enforcement–use the rules already on the books
- Adopt new codes if needed
- Pass a minimum maintenance ordinance
- Pass a demolition by neglect ordinance
- Adopt vacant property registry legislation
Force those property owners to behave responsibly or sell. When the price hits the right point, someone else will be ready to move on it.
This is what you need, this is where things change. When local people take ownership of those buildings, they put the love and care into them that they need and deserve. Local owners, local investors, local developers. This is the solution. Get the buildings into local hands and then we can worry about the next steps.
Vacant and blighted property is a cancer on your community and eats away at your sense of self, from the inside. Allowing your Main Street to deteriorate is a choice. Not enforcing standards makes the municipality complicit.
You shouldn’t expect people from outside of your town to do the right thing for your town. The time has long since passed to take back your Main Street–your community deserves it!