Fourteen empty downtown storefronts have Wellington officials searching for a remedy.
Fines could be used to discourage property owners from letting commercial spaces sit empty too long. The use of a vacant property registry was discussed Monday by village council.
“Our number of vacant commercial properties equals about 22 percent of all Wellington commercial properties,” said Main Street Wellington director Jenny Arntz. “What we’ve been doing to combat this isn’t working and it might be time to try something else.”
Empty businesses represent 18 percent of available commercial space on average across all Ohio communities, she said.
Arntz and a staffer have researched how registries have worked in communities such as Painesville and Millersburg, where fees for vacant commercial property owners start at $400 and $800 respectively and double each year.
In both communities, the fines are capped once they reach $6,400, which comes after year three in Millersburg and year five in Painesville.
Main Street has suggested that a potential Wellington registry should apply only to first-floor commercial properties.
The number of vacant properties in both Millersburg and Painesville fell dramatically once the registries were instituted, Arntz said.
Since Millersburg instituted its policy in 2015, all vacant property owners either found a tenant, sold their building, or actively listed it on the market, which came without the city having to hand down any fines.
Village council member Guy Wells, who according to the Lorain County auditor’s website owns three properties on Depot Street, said during the meeting he felt a registry would unfairly single out property owners for economic problems beyond their control.
“I’ve been in a situation as an owner where a business moved out and left me with a building full of photography equipment,” he said. “Getting a place rented withing two months is a pretty quick turnaround to say $800 will be owed if it takes three months. There’s only one side being put under the gun here and that could qualify as abuse.”
“Many vacant sites are functionally obsolete,” he said. “Unloading cargo is nearly impossible and it’s hard and very costly to adapt after a certain point.”
Mayor Hans Schneider suggested that fees could be refundable if the property were rented soon thereafter.
“I don’t think anyone would look at the downtown area and think it’s acceptable,” he said. “The goal here is to have a vibrant downtown, not to attack business owners.”
Council member Gene Hartman encouraged Main Street to continue its research but said property owners should be part of the conversation when the time comes to draw up a registry.
“This is a matter of community pride,” he said. “You don’t fix this by beating owners over the head and fining them. You encourage them and involve them.”
Village law director Steve Bond said if fines are applied to vacant properties, they must be associated with a cost.
“These registries talk about fees doubling after a year but they don’t explain why the fees double,” he said. “Our costs for the police patrolling the building don’t double after a year.”
In a letter to council, Main Street intern Joan Colleran said vacant storefronts have a residual effect on surrounding businesses.
“In order for Wellington to unlock its full economic potential, it’s important that we work together to return these vacant properties to productive use,” she wrote. “This will not only help downtown Wellington foster economic growth, but also create a more pleasant aesthetic for businesses to thrive in.”
Council member Mark Bughman said some properties, like the one formerly occupied by Happy Valley Chinese Restaurant before a fire closed the business in March, have become safety hazards. Village officials have been unable to reach the building’s owners.
“Something needs to be done because it’s not getting any better,” he said. “It’s to the point where some of these places are unsafe and ready to cave in.”
On Tuesday, Arntz said Wells’ property ownership could possibly keep him from viewing the situation objectively.
“He’s the only downtown property owner on council,” she said. “I think it’s something council would need to determine but I see the potential for a conflict of interest there.”
Arntz said some downtown properties, such as one located at 115 West Herrick owned by Merrill Watt of Kansas have been empty for more than a decade.
“The owner of that building has told us he doesn’t even want to be contacted,” she said. “We’ve had people approach us wanting to buy or lease it but he’s just never reachable. He has in his mind exactly what he wants in there and he’s waiting for that. I’ve also heard from another source he’s using the building as a tax write-off and doesn’t want to ever lease it.”
The cost of bringing vacant buildings up to code is one factor that causes owners not to actively seek new tenants, Arntz said.
Recently, the village applied for a state Community Development Block Grant that would have been partially used to reimburse property owners who improved their buildings. It was denied by the Lorain County Development Department.
“Those kinds of grants are becoming harder and harder for small villages like Wellington to take advantage of,” she said. “Unfortunately, the county has changed the process over the past three years where it has to go through them. They pick one community to compete with the rest of the state for the grant. Last year, they chose Oberlin. Oberlin didn’t end up getting it, but they were chosen again this year because of the college’s leverage funding. The county says the state looks at leverage dollars as the bottom line criteria.”
“I told them they need to tell me how we can compete, then,” she said. “We don’t have Oberlin College. Amherst is a lot larger in size. We really need the help.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.