WHITESVILLE — Kim Browning knows exactly what visitors think when they drive down her town’s main drag.
“At first glance it looks like the town needs to be dozered,” she says.
There are a few businesses along Coal River Road in Whitesville, but many of the properties are vacant, slowly collapsing in disrepair. You can see what the abandoned buildings once were— a department store here, a funeral home there, a gym back there. You can see their wasted potential reflected in the darkened windows.
Derelict properties are a cancer: Just one cell can destroy lots of otherwise healthy tissue.
When a property sits abandoned, it often attracts homeless people, crime, and drug activity, says Luke Elser, coordinator of the Brownfields, Abandoned, Dilapidated (BAD) Buildings Program for the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Center.
Surrounding property values decline, so those buildings don’t sell and also become abandoned. That leads to even more drops in property values, more crime, and more run-down buildings.
“Abandoned properties hurt people in very physical ways,” Elser says.
So earlier this year Browning and some fellow volunteers decided to do something about it. In addition to being selected as one of 2015’s Turn This Town Around communities by West Virginia Focus, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Whitesville also was selected to participate in the BAD Buildings Program.
Elsner says the program, now in its second year, aims to give communities the tools to tackle blight. Communities build “redevelopment plans” with prioritized inventories of abandoned properties—where the buildings are, what condition they are in, whether they are occupied, and who owns them. The BAD Buildings Program then helps its partners figure out new uses for the properties. It’s not all about bulldozing. “We don’t want just a flat piece of land. We want something that would be beneficial to the community,” Elser says.
The program also helps municipalities with legal tools to fight blight. In conjunction with West Virginia University’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, Elser and company work with communities to beef up municipal codes that combat derelict properties and make sure those codes are enforced by certified building inspectors.
Elser says it’s much more difficult for communities to win revitalization grants if they do not have legal tools in place to go after deadbeat landlords. But even though the BAD Buildings Program can provide tools for dealing with abandoned properties, Elser says it’s up to residents to make the plans and do the work.
“The community has to do its own soul-searching,” he says. “I don’t live in Whitesville. I can’t say what the right thing to do is. What we provide is, basically, the road map and the directions.”
Whitesville is off to a good start. Even before their first official meeting with Elser, Browning and other volunteers began working to catalog the derelict properties in their community.
“We just got started. We were excited about getting the process going,” she says.
The group obtained maps and a data report from the county with information about each property’s owners, and Browning went around town taking photos of abandoned buildings.
She calls them “before” photos — Browning is confident there will be an “after,” too.
With everything on paper, it became clear Whitesville was better off than previously thought. Only two or three buildings along Coal River Road were beyond repair and only about five structures elsewhere in town needed to be demolished. Others might be vacant and in disrepair, but they’re not hopeless.
“The bones are good,” Browning says.
Volunteers also learned most of the abandoned properties belonged to the same two landlords. One man recently died, but his brother is trying to sell off the properties. Four buildings along Coal River Road are now for sale and a local entrepreneur hopes to open a bakery in one of them. The other landlord is a bigger challenge.
“He’s 80-some years old. He’s known to be stubborn and not cooperative,” Browning says. “This man isn’t against selling out — his prices are just too high. He thinks (the property) is worth a million dollars.”
Whitesville’s town government has tried to crack down on blighted properties in the past but ended up in a drawn-out, unsuccessful court battle.
“They’ve just lost heart,” Browning says. “If the ordinances that are in the book were enforced, this town would not look the way it does.”
Unfortunately, “the book” is part of the problem.
The town’s building ordinances exist only on paper, stored in three separate three-ring binders.
Until recently, the codes were so disorganized and confusing police were afraid to try enforcing them. Volunteers recruited a local judge to go through the books and put everything in order. Browning hopes the town government will now have the confidence to enforce its rules.
Elser says legal action should stay pretty far down a community’s list of tactics, however. It’s better to build relationships with landlords and convince them to do the right thing.
“What we want to avoid is property owners feeling victimized,” he says.
Browning has taken the advice to heart. After some long conversations, that “stubborn and not cooperative” landlord has allowed Browning to clean his windows and install a temporary historical display.
He even gave her a key to one of the properties and has started attending Turn This Town Around meetings.
“It’s working,” she says. “Sometimes it just takes a different time. With Turn This Town Around, with excitement building up, I think it’s a new time.”
Zack Harold is the Managing Editor of West Virginia Focus. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or visit the online website at www.wvfocus.com