“We’re coming to the conclusion that less is more.”–Jackson, Michigan, City Manager Larry Shaffer
St. Petersburg, Florida (population 244,769): A former St. Petersburg housing manager had what appeared to be a conflict of interest when he hired city contractors to repair his rental properties, according to a city audit. A St. Petersburg Times investigation reported last year that Thomas de Yampert used DRM Properties in 2004 to renovate two of his rental homes in St. Pete Beach. Since 2004, DRM received $859,000 worth of loans approved by the department managed by de Yampert, who was the city’s housing rehabilitation and finance manager. The Times reported in December that at least three other contractors worked on de Yampert’s personal properties:
- Earl Pfeiffer, a general contractor who worked on one of de Yampert’s St. Pete Beach rentals, won $575,484 in contracts.
- J. Cerda Roofing pulled permits on de Yampert’s rentals between 2002 and 2004 and won more than $100,000 in contracts administered by de Yampert’s department.
- Irok Construction in 2005 renovated a garage of a St. Pete Beach rental owned by de Yampert and won $649,061 in contracts awarded by the city between 2003 and 2008.
The Times‘ findings, which also showed that there were no formal bidding procedures in de Yampert’s department and little oversight of his conduct, led Mayor Bill Foster to order an audit. After months of research, city auditors confirmed the Times’ account.
De Yampert, 62, announced his resignation in November 2010, but he didn’t leave the $85,000 job until Jan. 14. He had been in charge of the city’s housing and community work for 14 years. In the Dec. 17 Times story, de Yampert said he erred in judgment, but said he had little oversight of the process that awarded the contractors city contracts. Homeowners selected the contractors, he didn’t, he said then. But the audit concluded the opposite, finding that de Yampert’s department had few internal controls and bought property without City Council approval. De Yampert’s boss, housing and community development director Joshua Johnson, wouldn’t comment on the audit. The audit recommended that in the future, Johnson provide more oversight and involvement. Read more at the St. Petersburg Times.
Dayton, Ohio (population 141,527): Officials in a southwest Ohio city hope a plan for branding the city as immigrant-friendly will help bolster a shrinking population and rejuvenate its ailing economy. City commissioners in Dayton approved what City Manager Tim Riordan said is a framework for creating a more welcoming atmosphere at a time when all segments of the population are needed to help the city grow and prosper. The hope is to entice immigrants to live in Dayton and invite others of their nationality to join them, increasing the population and establishing businesses that would create jobs in an area hurt by lost manufacturing and other employment. In a decade that included the loss of major corporate employer NCR Corp., Dayton’s population dropped by about 15 percent from roughly 166,000 in 2000 to nearly 142,000 in 2010, according to U.S Census figures. The proportion of foreign-born residents is relatively small, just under 4 percent, or about 5,000, according to a 2010 Census survey.
Some planned recommendations aimed at boosting that number include increasing interpreter services in courts, government and health care agencies; creating a neighborhood district as a center for immigrant businesses; and recruiting tutors to help with language and literacy issues. Riordan said he has received some critical e-mails — most from outside Dayton — concerned that the community-wide initiative will attract illegal immigrants, but he says the plan is not about that. Steve Salvi, founder of Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, is critical of the plan he believes will attract illegal immigrants to Dayton and possibly other parts of the state. Salvi objects to a proposed municipal identification card for immigrants who are ineligible for other identifying documents needed to access banking, health care and other services and said only illegal immigrants would fall into that category. He also opposes the recommendation for “immigrant-friendly” law enforcement proposals limiting checks of immigration status to those suspected of serious crimes only.
City officials will review all of the recommendations to determine which ones are to be implemented as they are rolled out over several years. Immigrant Festus Nyiwo, a former attorney from Nigeria now attending an area college, welcomed the plan. Ismail Gula, a native of Libya and a part-time teacher at the University of Dayton, strongly favors recommendations that would reduce barriers to immigrant business development.
Dayton is not alone in trying to integrate immigrants into the mainstream community. The city of Columbus began an initiative in 2004 aimed at helping immigrants navigate government and other services, and officials there consider it a success. Columbus was among 20 cities recognized last year by the National League of Cities for successful efforts to integrate immigrants into their mainstream communities. Read more at Canadian Business.
Scott County, Minnesota (population 129,928): If cities and townships want to score more jobs in Scott County, local business leaders say the county better start acting more like a business. The Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency (SCALE) compiled a group of local business leaders, real estate experts and others to identify strategies to further the county’s goal of securing enough employment by 2030 to support half of its labor force. The committee completed work this summer and shared its findings with local elected officials in a meeting last month.
But the county also needs to work on its weaknesses: the perception of being “south of the river” with flooding closures, limited influence on metropolitan planning, limited higher education options, the lack of large corporate headquarters and underutilization of entertainment venues (among others).
Since each town benefits from nearby jobs, the goal of the group is for communities in the county to market their available land together, with one source for brokers to come to when they’re seeking information. Those at the meeting said local government staff must be able to deliver on their discussions with businesses without drawn-out processes.
When he meets with a company interested in coming to Savage, Stock said he knows what his council will support. Others in the room couldn’t say as much for their councils. There needs to be a collective consensus and commitment on economic development strategies and the money it may take – whether that be incentives or putting in roads and utilities necessary so land is developable, said attendees at the SCALE meeting. Read more at the Savage Pacer.
Southington, Connecticut (population 44,167): The town is urging local property owners to apply for a new state loan program designed to clean up and reclaim polluted industrial sites. Officials said they were told about the program late last month and have been reaching out to property owners who might qualify for it. A total of $25.8 million is available to businesses and property owners statewide, said Ned Moore, an economic development agent for the state Department of Economic and Community Development. Of that, $21.2 million is available in the form of low interest loans. The maximum an applicant can receive this year is $2 million. Another $4.6 million will be given out in grants; the largest single grant will be $500,000. Moore said more money will be given out next year. This loan and grant program is for brownfields, polluted former industrial sites that are either vacant or underutilized. Besides cleaning up the sites, loans or grants are also designed to spur economic development and create jobs, said Maya Loewenberger, an ombudsman for the DECD.
One project that town officials are hoping will be chosen is the planned Greenway Commons development off Center Street. A New York-based developer wants to turn the site of the former Ideal Forge Co. into condominiums. Part of the old factory complex was torn down this summer with the help of state funding. Read more at the Hartford Courant.
Pekin, Illinois (population 34,094): Roger Greer said he had just installed battery-powered smoke detectors “in every room with a bed” at the former retirement home he and his wife own. He hoped that would impress the state fire marshal administrator who inspected the building Friday. “He told me I wasted my money. They have to be hard-wired,” Greer said.
Even that upgraded fire protection, however, likely wouldn’t prevent the 16 struggling people who have come to call The Place on Prince their home for months from being forced out of the building the city has officially deemed dangerous. But, because Greer and his wife have apparently accepted that reality and have said goodbye to some of their paying house guests over the past two weeks, the city is giving those remaining until next Friday to depart. That news, delivered fresh Friday morning to some of the residents of the 21-bedroom facility at 601 Prince St., prompted smiles and hugs. One resident said she was ready to leave for a home she found in Farmington. Another named Angie, without such plans, hugged Roxy Greer, Roger’s wife and “our angel.” “I think we’re going to be here forever,” Angie told her.
“It will still take a $70- to $80,000 sprinkler system to do it,” Roxy replied. City fire department inspectors told the Greers just that last year when the couple sought to reopen the former assisted living and nursing home as a residence for homeless veterans. Still, since at least last fall they have taken in displaced people in return for what they call monthly donations of several hundred dollars that some can pay from their fixed incomes.
That was the extent of their strategy, she said, when the couple bought the former Place on Prince in April 2010. They said they didn’t know and weren’t told that, once the business previously occupying it closed and they bought it, the two-story brick structure must meet city fire codes that include building-wide sprinkler and alarm systems and wired smoke detectors. The residents they took in also didn’t know that until Sept. 16, when the city posted official notice on the building’s doors that everyone must be out by Sept. 30. Five days before then, the city council heard a dozen residents plead for a reprieve or at least more time. A day before the deadline, the city postponed the eviction and on Thursday set the new date of Oct. 14. That was earned by the Greers’ efforts to help the residents find new homes, a job that City Manager Joe Wuellner said the city has also taken up. The city has compiled a list of 17 public and private agencies and shelters which the residents can contact for help. All but two of them, however, are in Peoria or Woodford County.
Jim Walter, known to his fellow Place residents as Jammer, wasn’t impressed with the list or other housing options in Pekin. August had arrived to inspect the building Friday in response to Roger Greer’s appeal of the fire marshal’s report from the Sept. 16 inspection. Before he began, he repeated the caution Greer has heard repeatedly, that it’s the city’s fire code and its safety requirements he must meet.
“If I have to have a sprinkler system, I guess I have to,” said Roxy. When she and her husband might install it, and when the residents at Prince might reunite after next Friday, she doesn’t know. Read more at the Pekin Daily Times.
Jackson, Michigan (population 33,534): Jackson City Manager Larry Shaffer is recommending the City Council change direction and start razing vacant houses instead of rehabilitating them. Shaffer compared the growth in vacant housing — 462 homes, at last count — to the spreading of a disease. Shaffer said the city’s home values have fallen 32 percent since 2007 and are expected to fall 8 to 10 percent more next year. Property tax revenues have fallen from $7.9 million in 2007 to a projected $6.9 million this year. Compounding the problem is that nearly half of the homes in the city are not owner-occupied, he said.
Shaffer and Community Development Director Patrick Burtch said it was obvious the city was wasting money when it would buy a vacant home for $15,000, put more than $100,000 into it — as it did with one on Detroit Street — and be lucky to get back a quarter of its investment. But Shaffer and Burtch, who have been working for the city less than six months, did not want to recommend a policy change with anecdotal evidence. So, they had staff inspect the vacant homes and 1,400 empty lots, and built a database. Shaffer and Burtch estimate that it would cost more than $30 million to rehabilitate the homes and less than $5 million to raze them. Furthermore, they said reducing the supply of homes would create more demand, causing home values to stabilize or start to rise again.
Burtch and his staff, who worked weekends to complete the inspections in about two months, will present the data to the City Council on Tuesday. It will then go to the planning commission, zoning board of appeals, historic district commission and other bodies for recommendations before returning to the council for action.
Shaffer said if the council decides to change the policy, then the city will begin obtaining the homes and seek funding to demolish them. He said the city already owns some of the homes, and it will be relatively easy to get homes owned by the Jackson County Land Bank Authority and harder to get homes that are privately owned. The city could seek Community Development Block Grants to raze the homes, and form partnerships with lenders that have foreclosed on the homes to share the demolition costs, he said. Once the homes are down, the city could do landscaping and fill in curbs and sidewalks to make the lots fit better with the rest of the neighborhood and more attractive for redevelopment, he said. Read more at Michigan Live.
Windsor, Colorado (population 18,644): A proposal for an economic incentives policy was presented to the Windsor Town Board last Monday night. The proposal was explained by Stacy Johnson, the town’s business development manager. She told the board to think of the policy as a package of guidelines. The program is an incentive program offered to companies looking to expand or locate their facilities in town. Some of the incentives the board is considering to offer include waiving certain fees and taxes, an expedited permit review process and matching dollars for a training program. The focus for this first plan is on primary jobs and primary employers, Johnson said.
Town board member Kristie Melendez asked about incentives for redevelopment. Johnson said that was a great idea. Melendez was also interested in making sure the board kept in contact with the Downtown Development Authority. The board will consider the full document at a future regular session for adoption. Read more at the Windsor Beacon.
Princeton, Wisconsin (population 1,214): The lunch crowd at Once In a Blue Moon in downtown Princeton on a cool Wednesday at the end of September kept the two waitresses on duty hopping. Every table on this sun-drenched day was full, mostly with women lunching, laughing and talking. Owners Denny — in the kitchen, and Deena Ballagh — in the dining room, worked fast to keep customers fed and happy. When diners finished with their meals they browsed the retail section of the business. To all appearances, everything is good in this little spot in downtown Princeton. The downtown as a whole might not be so lucky.
Princeton, which once had a waiting list of businesses drooling for a spot to open up on Water Street, now has seven or eight empty storefronts. Sure, it still has the weekly flea market and a growing number of antique stores that bring folks in by the thousands. It still has Twister, which calls itself a lifestyle emporium, and the Pizza Factory with its award-winning pizza variations, and a number of other stores. But seven or eight vacancies in a relatively small downtown is not good.
The Ballaghs came from California in 1996 , encouraged by friends who got wind of the burgeoning Tracy Porter empire in Princeton. The home décor maven had her fledgling Stone House Farm Goods store on a main corner on Water Street and people all over (later on even Oprah became a fan of Porter’s hand-painted pretties) were beginning to take notice. John and Tracy Porter had started what became a multi-million business licensing their designs and selling women’s clothing, home décor, furnishings and jewelry. Tracy Porter was once a guest on the Oprah Show featuring young American entrepreneurs.
Mimi’s, an Italian restaurant that oozed charm across the street, was great competition, Denny said. After several years’ run, Mimi’s closed. Other retail stores followed. The Porters had long since moved to Ripon and opened a design studio there in a renovated Oddfellows Hall, and later a large retail store that lasted only a short time. More than a year ago the Porters sold their huge home and acreage near Ripon and moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., to open a swanky retail shop. They took with them Tracy Porter’s sister Robyn Mockus who had earlier taken over the old Stone House Farm Goods building in Princeton and named it georgie’s. It stands empty today, as does the Oddfellows Hall in Ripon. The Porters’ empire is gone.
Downtown troopers in Princeton such as the Ballaghs and Dennis and Kristin Galatowitsch over at Twister understand that to survive, businesses must continually reinvent themselves. The Ballaghs keep their menu varied and fresh. They added the gift shop.
Like so many others, Kristin Galatowitsch was drawn to Princeton by its charming downtown. As an attorney with an office in Wautoma in the late 1990s, she would travel from Wautoma to the courthouse in Green Lake via the back way that led her along Water Street in Princeton. Once In a Blue Moon, Stone House Farm Goods, and another now defunct shop called Henry’s caught her eye. She spoke to Maura Koutoujian at Henry’s about how she ended up in Princeton in a retail store.
The store that now holds Twister was for sale, the Galatowitsches always liked the idea of a loft apartment and the price was right. They bought it with the thought of living upstairs and renting the downstairs space. Dennis, a civil engineer, was completing a stint with AmeriCorps Visa. Even though neither of the Galatowitsches had retail experience Dennis decided to give it a go.
That was in 1999. Seven other new shops opened in downtown Princeton that year. Because the Galatowitsches live in the same building where they have their shop it is convenient and less costly than maintaining a home separately. Kristin continues with her legal work and also works in the shop. They have evolved and learned the business during the dozen or so years they’ve been at it. Other shops come and go but they stay. They sell an eclectic mix of goods including kitchen gadgets, candles, wine and beer, toys and women’s clothing. They select items for their shop that people won’t find at a mall. Kristin Galatowitsch is not discouraged by the number of store vacancies. She prefers to look at them as opportunities rather challenges. Read more at The Northwestern.