In 2007, the downtown of Greenville, Kentucky, population 4,200, looked a lot like Haines’ Main Street does today.
According to Brett Schwartz, a National Association of Developments Organization research fellow who studied Greenville, the southern town was decaying.
“On a Saturday night, you would have likely walked on deteriorated sidewalks, peered into vacant storefronts with dilapidated facades, and felt enveloped by silence and darkness,” Schwartz said. “Like many other small towns throughout the United States, Greenville’s downtown had slowly deteriorated as development and investments were directed elsewhere.”
By 2012, however, Greenville had done an about-face. Previously empty buildings were occupied by restaurants, apparel stores and gift shops. A nearby green space was transformed into a park with footpaths and picnic tables. The city put on a free summer music series, attracting people to enjoy live music downtown.
“This positive change in Greenville was neither an accident nor left to chance; rather, it was the result of a small community with a vision for how to build on its local assets and infrastructure, seek innovative financing, and cultivate partnerships in a challenging economic environment,” Schwartz said.
Much of Greenville’s success was due to strong government leadership. The Mayor and city administrator met with the Kentucky League of Cities, which urged the city to adopt a restaurant and hotel tax to fund downtown improvements and activities. The government got citizens on board through a proactive advertising campaign, which said the tax would “bring life and business back to downtown.”
After the tax passed with “zero opposition,” Schwartz said, revenue was used to fund events like “Let’s Paint the Town,” which partnered business owners and volunteers to paint and restore downtown building facades.
The tax, which brings in about $275,000 a year, also funds the “Squash and Gobble” fall arts festival and the free summer music series “Saturdays on the Square.”
The problem of a stagnating downtown is not unique to Haines. Communities in Alaska and the Lower 48 struggle to fill vacant buildings and get residents to shop at home.
Looking at what has worked elsewhere could help Haines, said Barbara Sheinberg, a community and strategic planner who worked on the borough’s downtown revitalization plan that came out in 2010.
“Many communities are thinking about these things and dealing with these things. There are a lot of tools you can use, and it just comes down to what communities want to do and what they want to spend,” Sheinberg said.
The $40,000 revitalization plan, completed by MRV Architects, largely fizzled along with the downtown revitalization committee, which stopped meeting for nearly two years and only reconvened two months ago.
The plan identified eight immediate priorities for a downtown revitalization effort: 1) Formalizing a downtown improvement district and hiring a half-time staff person; 2) Working with the state Department of Transportation on funded improvements and starting discussion of future Main Street improvements; 3) Dedicating a local revenue source to get started; 4) Upgrading signage into town; 5) Starting a building improvement grant program; 6) Establishing a buy-local campaign, 7) Starting a downtown assistance program, and 8) Seeking funding for streetscape infrastructure.
“The basic things are really outlined in there,” Sheinberg said.
Sheinberg, who lives in Juneau and has served on the city’s planning commission, said like Haines, Juneau is struggling with a number of empty buildings and lots downtown. “There are a lot of old timers who own buildings here and they have paid off their debt and they own it free and clear, so there is really no disincentive to holding on it,” she said.
In the Lower 48, towns have taken measures to create those disincentives. Vacant buildings within the District of Columbia are documented and reclassified into a higher property tax rate if they remain empty for long.
In December 2010, the city of Berkeley, Calif., adopted an “Encouraging Economic Development and Increasing City Revenue from Business Activity” plan and asked the planning commission to investigate “providing incentives to property owners to encourage leasing and establish disincentives to motivate property owners not to leave their properties vacant.”
A city council member in Berkeley also suggested charging a fixed fee to landlords who let their buildings sit vacant for a certain time period.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said she wouldn’t support a punitive tax or fee on vacant building owners yet. “Before any rules are made, conversation needs to take place,” Scott said.
Scott currently is sending letters to the owners of vacant downtown properties. The letter asks owners to identify barriers to selling or renting their buildings and how the government could help.
Scott said she is also reticent to introducing incentives to get new and existing businesses to move downtown. “If we provide incentives for people to inhabit downtown, what are we saying to people who are already there and who are stuck with it?”
When asked why the borough hasn’t done more to implement the recommendations from the MRV plan, Scott pointed to two factors: “It costs money and the MRV plan is dated.”
“The MRV plan had a vision for downtown and part of that vision – a large part of that vision – had to do with architecture, and I don’t think the town is ready to have uniformity in their downtown core. It just doesn’t strike a chord with the community of Haines,” Scott said.
Efforts Scott said she would support included funding live music downtown on cruise ship days, investigating how to develop more public parking downtown, and devoting borough staff time and personnel to the downtown revitalization committee.
“I would like to see them get some staff support so they don’t have to do all this research by themselves,” Scott said.
That research should involve looking into what other communities are doing to address similar problems, Scott said.
Sheinberg, after being contacted by the CVN and assembly member Debra Schnabel, decided to conduct a short, five-question survey of her fellow planners throughout the state to see how they are grappling with issues like vacant buildings and what kind of “sticks” and “carrots” communities use to encourage downtown improvements.
The survey results should be available May 15, Sheinberg said.
In Juneau, the Community Development Department is taking several steps to address downtown revitalization. In addition to revamping parking requirements that were stunting development and working with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to create more housing downtown, the city also is using legal resources to pressure owners who aren’t maintaining their buildings.
For more than a year, the city has been working with the owner of the Gastineau Apartments building, which burned down in November 2010, said community development director Hal Hart.
“Every week the Mayor calls and says, ‘What are we doing about that?’” Hart said of the blighted structure. “We’re working with our legal department to turn up the heat on the abandoned building.”
“It’s good to have a compliance program with legal support,” Hart added.
Hart is also looking at some of the large vacant buildings to see if the city can make it easier for business owners to move into the lower floors, and then get the help of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to install housing in the upper floors.
“We met with the banking community and started putting our heads together,” Hart said. “We said, ‘What more can we do to incentivize or provide loans or create a program or fund to create loan guarantees for someone going in to revamp that old building?’”
The private nonprofit Juneau Economic Development Council also is sponsoring a contest called the Storefront Star awards, an improvement competition that “recognizes businesses and building owners for their contributions to an attractive, safe and vital downtown Juneau.”
Building owners interested in entering the contest can get free advice from local architects, artists, historians and designers on their envisioned improvements, and contest winners are awarded cash prizes.