February 11, 2014

Plan would demolish up to 500 buildings

Plan would clear backlog of derelict structures

February 11, 2014 By D.E. Smoot Phoenix Staff Writer

City planners outlined a plan to demolish up to 500 dilapidated structures located throughout Muskogee.

The plan would wipe out a backlog that grows larger each year and eliminate blight.

Officials laid out the plan in an internal memorandum seeking approval to begin the application process to secure grants to help fund the program. The proposal outlines plans to apply for a $1 million grant from the City of Muskogee Foundation for demolition work and $300,000 to fund incentives to spur residential infill development.

Planning Director Gary Garvin, in a memorandum to City Attorney Roy Tucker, states there are more than 400 structures within Muskogee that have been — or are in the process of being — condemned. Another 50, Garvin states, are added to that list each year.

In order to eliminate the backlog and stay current in the future, the city would have to match the foundation grant dollar for dollar. Municipal funding would be contingent upon voters approving a $1 million outlay from the city’s capital improvements program, which would require the extension of a temporary sales tax.

“If funding is approved by the voters and the City of Muskogee Foundation, we would have the funding necessary to demolish all of the structures that have been condemned over the past several years,” Garvin states in the memo. “In the future we would be able to demolish dilapidated structures as they were condemned rather than sitting on a list for several years waiting for funding to become available.”

Garvin said the proposed demolition plan would address a variety of issues ranging from crime prevention to increasing property values. It also would improve public health and safety and spur development within areas where there has been a lack of interest among investors.

Ward III Councilor Randy Howard, who raised the issue during his recent re-election bid, said he is “tickled to death” about Garvin’s proposal. He said this is something that has been needed “for such a long time.”

“If we get these houses cleaned up, I think we will be surprised how many people who will be willing to invest in those areas,” Howard said. “We need some good affordable housing in Muskogee, something people can get in to and still have decent payments.”

Ward IV Councilor-elect Marlon Coleman agreed with Howard about the need for “decent, affordable, middle-class housing” in Muskogee. Demolishing structures without a plan to utilize the remaining space, Coleman said, would be “a bad idea.”

“When industries come to town or when individuals come here to work, they don’t want to feel like they have to go outside Muskogee to live,” Coleman said. “Those are the first things every employer looks at when they come to town: Is there a good school system and where are their employees going to live?”

Coleman, however, cautioned about an overly aggressive demolition campaign. He cited concerns about earlier projects that spawned lawsuits filed by property owners who allege they were denied due process and never compensated for damages.

Garvin said recent changes have been made to allay those concerns. He said procedures now in place exceed what state law requires.

“As of late, we have amended our practice to include an additional due process component which goes beyond what is legally required,” Garvin said, noting the addition of an extra hearing before a building official before a structure is condemned. “There is no guarantee to ensure no action will be litigated, however, we believe that this new method will ensure we have the necessary evidence to dispense with any such claims in a more efficient manner with less reliance on testimony and more on documentary procedures.”

D.J. Thompson, foundation manager and chief operations officer, said she is aware of Garvin’s proposal and plans to submit a letter of inquiry regarding a grant application. She said if Garvin’s proposal is structured in accordance with prior discussions, the plan would address not only the demolitions but how the empty lots would “be maintained and utilized.”

“It is exciting to see these types of requests that have the potential to make a significant impact on the quality of life and economic development of the city,” Thompson said. “This request will be evaluated along with all of the other letters of inquiry to ensure the foundation’s 2014 granting budget is maximized and so that the foundation is meeting its mission of making a real difference in Muskogee.”

The City of Muskogee Foundation is a nonprofit corporation formed in 2008 to develop, support and promote programs designed to improve the quality of life in Muskogee.

The foundation is funded with proceeds from the 40-year lease of the city’s hospital — now known as EASTAR Health System — to Capella Healthcare. A portion of the returns on its investment of that money is used to fund grants designed to promote its mission.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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