Kendallville launching new blight fight

June 3rd, 2019

By Steve Garbacz | KPC Media - The News Sun

City leaders are doubling down on an effort to fight neighborhood blight, including putting up $100,000 in tax dollars to launch a new rehab initiative.

On Thursday, Mayor Suzanne Handshoe summoned members from numerous city boards and departments — the city council, board of works, planning commission, board of zoning appeals, redevelopment commission, Kendallville Local Development Corp., Economic Development Advisory Commission and the downtown Economic Improvement District — to host an information meeting.

The only topic: Addressing neighborhood blight.

“We can define and outline for the city and all the boards we have that we are all rowing in the same direction, because a lot of the boards don’t know what each other are doing,” Handshoe said. “Property values declining, lack of pride of ownership. When the value declines, the assessed value declines and the taxes go up.”

Kendallville has been trying to attack the worst cases of blight by condemning, seizing and knocking down multiple residential properties beyond repair. But that process is long, tedious and expensive since it involved giving property owners notice, going through court proceedings if issues are addressed and then hiring a demolition firm at a cost of thousands of dollars.

What remains after the demolition is an empty lot and a big lien and some lots in old neighborhoods are too small to rebuild on with current city building codes.

Part of the plan going forward is a new initiative aimed at capturing and fixing up properties before they get to the point they have to be torn down, led by a new nonprofit group called Kendallville Restorations Inc.

Attorney Jacob Atz, one of the founders and a board member of the new organization, explained that the primary goal would be for the nonprofit to obtain at-risk properties, rehab them and then resell them to families with means and willingness to occupy and maintain the homes.

“The goal here is to acquire property, rehab property and then give that property back into the hands of single family owners. If we identify property that can’t be rehabbed, we might bring it down,” Atz said. “The idea is to stabilize these neighborhoods and bring back pride of ownership.”

The organization is being modeled off a similarly named Bloomington Restorations group that has successfully worked to flip about 80 different properties in Bloomington, the home of Indiana University. That organization has been in operation for 35 years, so Kendallville isn’t making the idea up from scratch, Atz said.

Atz presented a map that highlighted numerous at-risk homes already identified. The zone the organization wants to focus on first is located primarily along Main Street north of the railroad tracks. Currently, every house located on the east side of Main Street from Sargent Street to Wayne Street is on the radar, along with several other scattered throughout the nearby neighborhoods.

Kendallville Restorations Inc. is a nonprofit organization, but it’s being launched with seed money coming from local tax dollars. The Kendallville Local Development Corp. agreed to transfer $100,000 in County Economic Development Income Tax funds to an account at the Community Foundation of Noble County to get the program going, Handshoe said.

In the future, funding is expected to come from local donations, fundraising as well as the possibility of state grants, Chris Jansen, another Kendallville Restorations board member, said.

Jerry Spaw, a resident in the North Main Street corridor and member of Kendallville Restorations, said he got involved because he’s been trying to push to clean up the neighborhood.

Spaw and his wife moved into the neighborhood 25 years ago — he works at Strawser Brothers and she works at North Side Elementary nearby — and over time numerous houses have deteriorated. They had talked about trying to sell their house and moving, but Spaw said they instead decided to stick with their home and then do what they could to improve the surrounding area.

The Spaws have purchased and rehabbed some houses and he said he now hopes Kendallville Restorations will be able to do more of the same.

“Hopefully we can turn it around and sell it to someone as a single-family house,” Spaw said. “Maybe some other people in town feel the same way if we all pull together. It takes everybody.”

On top of the new initiative, Handshoe also recapped several ongoing projects aimed at fighting blight in neighborhoods.

Those included continuing the condemnation program but attempting to do more demo in-house, since contractor prices have about doubled from a year ago; pushing ahead with getting a single, citywide trash hauler to alleviate issues with people who simply don’t pay for trash removal and instead pile up, burn or dump garbage; supporting code enforcement and its two part-time officers in their duties; and hosting free curbside pickup cleanup days in June for the first time in years.

Handshoe also spoke briefly about ongoing efforts to support downtown redevelopment, including applying for a streetscape grant to get new sidewalks and decorative features. She also highlighted the efforts of the city redevelopment commission and its facade grant program, which has supported more than $1 million in improvements since its inception.

Downtown building owners and business operators, like neighbors in residential areas, also have a role to play in holding their neighbors accountable to maintain their buildings and create an attractive downtown, Handshoe said.