West End Update – January

This article originally appeared in the January 20th edition of The Mining Journal:

Can rebirth rise from a torn down building? That’s a question that could be asked by many that live in Negaunee. Over the years, the City has suffered the losses of several great iconic historic buildings. Mostly due to lack of funding and neglect that started well before the current owners.

Some have asked, why not fix these buildings, why not save them? An easy solution for a very complex problem. The fact is, many new owners fall in love with these buildings of yesterday. However, this love may blind the senses of reality. Preventing one from seeing the time, money, and upgrades needed to take on such a project.  As they say, you can fix anything if you have enough money!

This same principle applies in any downtown like Negaunee’s. The difference in our community is we are taking steps to try to preserve these remaining buildings. This will not be easy and we will not always be successful, but we are trying. With well thought out policies and incentives that can cause real change and real rehabilitation.

Policies and incentives like the Commercial Rehabilitation District, a program just created by the City to assist property owners in temporarily decreasing their tax liability for new construction or rehabilitation of downtown buildings. Additional incentives include state historic tax credits just recently passed by the Michigan Legislature and signed into law by Governor Whitmer. A game-changer for some downtown buildings that can also use these tax credits in combination with federal tax credits.

It is true that the City never really made or forced anyone to take care of their buildings for many years, but this is a true for many communities, whether small or large, across the United States. This lack of foresight, caused many of our beloved buildings to fall into a state of great disrepair. This condition is a road block, a road block that inevitably will cause a building to collapse or be torn down.

But why tear down these buildings? The answer is simple, public safety. As they say, safety is number one. The City cannot risk a building falling in on itself and cause injury to lives, nor can we allow the destruction or damage to perfectly viable buildings next to them.

This is why in 2018, the City adopted a Property Maintenance Code (PMC). The code allows the City to work with, and in some cases force, property owners to maintain their buildings to livable and usable conditions. Our goals it to fix what we can and to prevent further deterioration and damage. This foresight is one element that will help to save downtown Negaunee.

Some may say it’s not the responsibility of the City to tear down a building. I would say yes and no. No, because Negaunee, like many other cities, doesn’t want take these actions. Money used for demolition on private property could be spent on other services. Of course, we would rather have the property owner take charge. But we have the obligation to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community. We don’t want to be in the business of taking care of private properties, but we will if necessary.

But back to the original question, can rebirth rise from a torn down building? Yes. Besides polices and incentives, rebirth can be brought with attitude. In the City’s case, a new attitude has been forged through our Moving Forward program. Where city staff and officials are united in walking the talk, where we find ways to say yes and make projects work.

One great example comes from some recent activity by Scott Soeltner of Smarty’s Saloon. Scott recently participated in a Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) façade grant in 2018, with assistance from the City. Through this process he was able to refresh the outside of his building and in doing so increased his overall business.

Fast-forward two years later, Scott now wanted to move on to his next step in providing more services and space for his customers. Looking next door, he realized that there was a building that was not being used. After contacting the City, he and city staff examined the building to determine if was safe and could possibly be reproposed. Unfortunately, soon after this examination the roof of this building began to fail. Sealing its fate: demolition.

After working with the City under the PMC, Scott was able to transfer the property from the previous owner to himself.  In late fall, he began demoing the building. It was a late start, but due to COVID he was left with little choice. A bold step to take during pandemic, he was only open 169 days of the 363 days he normally is open. Even with these challenges, he was able to forge forward and pay for the demolition himself.

Now he is working towards his next steps. By putting pen to paper and having an engineer draw out his plans, Scott intends to provide an outdoor space that is used for events like wedding parties, birthdays, and anniversaries. It will also be used as overflow during community festivals like Pioneer Days. This unique space will provide an area for a band and dancing, outdoor games (if desired), seating, and may even include an outdoor gas firepit. Scott hopes to begin construction on this space this spring.

“I wanted to say how helpful Mr. Nelson was from the city Planning and Zoning Department. He has been instrumental during COVID and this project. Without his assistance, I may not have been able to reopen,” Scott said.

Progress is happening and new life is rising into our downtown. With new tools at the City’s disposal, coupled with a forward-looking attitude, the City has become a partner and is ready to get to work. Our polices and incentives are working and can work for your business too!  As for individuals like Scott, his dreams are happening, they are Moving Forward in Negaunee!