“They stopped thinking about it as me and started thinking about it as we.”
The Fairmont BAD Building team, formed after the City received the BAD Building technical assistance grant, was spearheaded by Kathy Wyrosdick and Mark Miller of the Planning & Development Department. They held a kickoff meeting in June 2014, divided the city by council districts, and volunteers broke into teams of two to cover specific districts. Eighteen volunteers walked the streets to document the conditions of abandoned and dilapidated properties throughout the city via a 2 page survey per building. When possible they took pictures of the properties with personal phones. It took the team about two and half months to survey 326 properties across 110 miles of city streets—on foot.
The next step was to compile the information into a complete database. A handful of volunteers accomplished this within about a month and a half. This became a “live” document, and the team continues to add and tweak information about properties in the file. For instance, some properties that were perceived to be vacant were in fact inhabited by the owner, and some have already been claimed for redevelopment. After cross-referencing the inventory with water accounts and rental registration, the team sent friendly letters to truly abandoned properties to investigate what owners planned to do with them. So far they have had a good response rate, and property owners have started to show up to the monthly meetings to learn what their options are. It’s a collaborative process.
One of the most surprising and encouraging results of the inventory project was that the people who came to the meetings and volunteered “were not your usual suspects,” according to Kathy. Typically, council members or others who have worked with the city in the past would show up to similar meetings, however this time concerned residents who had heard about the project through the media came out in support of neighborhood revitalization. These citizens had personal issues with specific blighted structures, but they did not show up to complain. They showed up because they care. One resident, Houston Richardson, was tired of driving past 3 or 4 dilapidated properties every time he left his house and wanted to do something about it. Through the inventory process, individual volunteers came together as a group. “They stopped thinking about it as me and started thinking about it as we,” says Kathy.
Interestingly, a surprising number of the people who wanted to participate in the discussion were artists who use reclaimed materials in their work. These artists salvage parts of dilapidated buildings that are being torn down or deconstructed, such as rebar. Their interest led to a spinoff architectural salvage work session. Over 40 people showed up to the session, which was held at local restaurant Dos Hermanos, whose owners closed the restaurant in support. This is one creative way local residents have turned blight into an asset.
Some members of city council were initially against the creation of strong legal enforcement like a vacant property ordinance, but after collective learnings from the inventory process, they understand that specific tools need to be implemented in order to tackle the dilapidated building situation.
While only certain volunteers were willing to visit properties in more heavily blighted neighborhoods due to safety concerns, and the team could have been more consistent in rating the condition of buildings, the Fairmont BAD Building Team’s complete inventory proves that a group of dedicated volunteers can work together to cover such a large area. People changed their attitudes as a result of participation, and the City now has a tangible way to tackle blight in the community. Contact Mark Miller, Fairmont Planning Director, to learn more.