Empty buildings generate more questions than answers




by Ron Gholson

Accompanying this article are photos of several of the two-dozen-odd vacant retail buildings in Oneonta. Fourteen are downtown, the remainder scattered along state highway 75 from near downtown to the Creekside shopping development across from Walmart. Taken together, they constitute a photo editorial on the economic status of the Oneonta area today.

Local officials don’t want to say that’s a record number of empty buildings for the city, but most say they can’t remember a time when there were more.

Last week, The Blount Countian
raised a number of questions about the current state of affairs, relating to what could be done, what should be done, what it would take to do it, and whose job it is to take on. The article probably implied that this week the answers would be forthcoming.

Instead of answers, however, the paper’s reporting raised more questions and some considerations that are simply imponderable.

‘It’s the economy, stupid’

All respondents agreed on one explanation: the immediate cause of the distress evident in the market for retail buildings is the economic recession of 2007 to 2009 and the current faltering state of the economic recovery.

“At just about every convention I’ve attended for the last year or longer, there’s an economist talking about the economy and the recovery,” said Oneonta city manager Ed Lowe. “Most of them seem to think we may have another dip or period of recession before the recovery continues.

“I’m not looking for a significant correction over the next three quarters,” he continued, “and from a city budgetary standpoint next year, we won’t have any major decreases, but we’re not proposing any additions either.”

Lowe said that before the economic downturn, he received an average of three to four inquiries a month concerning local retail space available. “Now, if I get a single call a month, I’m doing good,” he said.

Real estate broker Bob Harvey echoes the same situation. “We’ve had inquiries in the past, but right now with the economy like it is, there’s just nobody. I don’t believe we’ve gotten a call on a retail space listing in the last 60 days.”

Harvey said he thinks the worst is yet to come on commercial property as the toll of foreclosures spreads from the residential to the commercial real estate market. “I think you’ll see more strip malls and shopping centers close, particularly in larger metro areas,” he said.

‘Revitalization,’ old and new

Questions that naturally arise are, what can be done? what should be done? And here, questions seem to breed more questions.

One reflex answer would be some kind of revitalization program. Such programs often involve improving the esthetics of downtown areas, and in some towns may involve marketing or promotional activities by the municipality or merchants’ association – or both – to proactively reach out to new business prospects. Some towns or merchants’ associations have actually hired full-time managers to promote or market the town, or even recruit new businesses.

A program called Main Street initiated a decade or more ago took that approach and led to dramatic facelifts in a dozen or so Alabama towns and cities. The Main Street program, implemented by the Alabama Historical Commission, seems to have itself suffered the effects of the economic downturn through state funding cuts. It is no longer accepting communities for the program.

Similar approaches to town revitalization through storefront improvement and redesign have been mounted under the auspices of Auburn University and the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission. Neighboring towns of Springville and Pell City are examples of dramatic downtown improvements in both appearance and downtown traffic flow.

Lowe makes the point that some of that type work has been done here: for example, the consolidation and improvement of city police and fire services and keeping city functions and employees downtown, rather than moving all to an outlying area. Substantial downtown street and sidewalk improvements have been made, with more to come.

Last year, Oneonta applied for acceptance to the Alabama Communities of Excellence program. The main rewards from that program come from achieving the strategic objectives in areas of leadership, economic development, education, and quality of life that the community itself defines, funds, and implements. While Oneonta did not qualify in its first attempt to be accepted as a community of excellence, it will probably re-apply next year after refining the strategic planning part of its application. Perhaps, developing a revitalization strategy and action plan to utilize vacant retail space would stregthen its application and lead to acceptance in the next round of evaluation. Food for thought.

A radical proposal: think, plan, work together

Other ideas for revitalization include intensive study and analysis that would result in a business theme or niche concept that could be used to create a destination type appeal for the core shopping area, and that would draw retail business from surrounding areas.

The basis for the concept might be a mixed-use approach that would combine core area residential development, varied dining options, and a retail mix that would differentiate the town from others in the area and attract a sustained influx of customers.

Implementing such a concept would require identifying the specific concept or business niche mix and developing a consensus and shared implementation agreement among at least four critical constituencies in the city: entrepreneurs in the form of existing business owners; the city administration, especially its political sector; the real estate/property ownership community; and the local banking industry along with any and all other capital sources that could be recruited to the project.

The critical question: where would such a project begin? How would it get started? Where would the initiative have to come from?

The general answer is “from wherever the visionary leadership and personal courage to mount such a campaign might arise.”

A more specific answer coming from sources as diverse as city manager Ed Lowe, Rep. Elwyn Thomas, and chamber of commerce president Charles Carr is “the private sector.” If the energy and initiative don’t manifest themselves there, there’s little chance of creating the synergy and sustained effort necessary for success.

The buck stops there, with the need for a visionary leader or leaders to arise from the private sector to lead the renaissance that downtown Oneonta, along with citizens of the surrounding area, could enjoy and benefit from.