Council discusses development tool

Members of Marietta City Council’s planning, zoning, annexation and housing committee held a brief discussion Tuesday afternoon on development in the city’s community reinvestment area (CRA).

The Ohio Community Reinvestment Area program is an economic development tool city governments can use to provide tax abatements for property owners who renovate existing buildings or construct new facilities within the designated CRA.

The city’s current CRA was designated by city council in 2007 and includes Front, Second and Third streets, bounded by Ohio Street to the south and Scammel Street to the north in the downtown area.

In the Harmar district the CRA includes the 500 block of Fort Street, the 100 blocks of Grand, Groves and Leland avenues, and the 100 block of Lancaster Street. The Harmar CRA also includes the 200-1100 blocks of Gilman Avenue, 300 and 400 blocks of Franklin Street and 100 and 200 blocks of Maple Street and Putnam Avenue.

Only one business has taken advantage of the CRA since it was developed. Ken and Dagmar Kupsche, co-owners of The Cook’s Shop on Front Street, received a 49 percent property tax abatement for renovating a former grocery warehouse into their kitchen supply business with living quarters upstairs.

“It took a year to get the paperwork done for the Kupsches, and the abatement amounts to a savings of about $1,000 a year for 12 years,” said council president Walt Brothers.

Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, noted developers can become discouraged if it takes a year to obtain approval for a CRA tax reduction.

“If someone wants to take advantage of this, we should at least be able to give them an idea of the amount of time it will take,” he said.

A second CRA project may now be in the works.

Last week Hunt Brawley, director of development for the nonprofit Hippodrome-Colony Historical Theatre Association, asked council members to consider approving a 100 percent CRA abatement that would benefit the Peoples Bank Theatre (former Colony Theatre) renovation project.

Vukovic noted that before any CRA abatement can be considered by council, the developer requesting the waiver must first obtain permission from the city’s three school districts, including Marietta City Schools, Ewing School, and WASCO, Inc. He said those institutions receive some support from the city property tax.

Brawley is currently making contact with all three institutions about the proposed CRA abatement.

On a related issue Tuesday, the committee members talked about preservation of buildings in the downtown area.

“We really need to encourage restoration of our historic buildings,” said committee chairman Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward.

He said an example is the St. Clair building at 216 Putnam St. that has fallen into disrepair, but the out-of-town owner of the property, listed as First Bank of Ohio, is not taking care of it.

“The owner should be required to either do something or tear it down,” Kalter said.

But fellow councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, disagreed.

“I think we need to help people fix up these buildings so they can be used,” he said. “There’s no advantage to tearing down a building and leaving a hole in our downtown business district. I don’t want to encourage people to tear down buildings instead of repairing them.”

Kalter said he’s all for preserving the structures, “But what if an owner just doesn’t care what happens to his building-what can we do?”

Council president Walt Brothers said the problem is a broad issue that includes restraints on making improvements to many downtown buildings that are located in the flood plain.

“FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has set restrictions on remodeling old buildings in the flood plain,” he said, noting regulations that limit annual improvements to 50 percent of the structure’s value.

But council member Harley Noland, D-at large, said Marietta’s downtown area has been designated a national historic district, which means improvements to those buildings are not subject to the FEMA restrictions.

“If the building is in the historic district you can do whatever you want,” he said.

Kalter said he would like to see the second floors of more downtown buildings renovated into loft apartments and credited local developer Keith Malone for renovating several Front Street buildings into quality loft apartments.

“Those types of apartments could be rented for $1,200 a month,” he said.

But McCauley noted that making such upgrades can be costly to a developer.

“Sprinkler systems (for fire suppression) are required when buildings are renovated into apartments, and that can be expensive,” he said.

Kalter said more downtown buildings could use better fire alarm and suppression systems, noting that only about a quarter of those structures are currently protected by such systems.