By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Planning commissioners tabled action on a proposed ordinance that would place more responsibility on the owners of certain vacant commercial buildings.
The decision to delay action was made after they listened to pleas from people on both sides of the issue. Property owners who might be affected by the proposed ordinance oppose it, but members of an Action in Muskogee committee argued for its passage.
The ordinance would establish a program designed to identify and register vacant commercial buildings. The program would define owners’ responsibilities, hasten rehabilitation efforts, and shift the associated costs of vacancy from taxpayers to the owners.
Discussions about the need for such a program began late last year when city councilors approved a permit authorizing demolition of the former S.H. Kress Building. AIM meetings spurred subsequent debate about the city’s curb appeal and a desire “to be known as an exceptionally beautiful community.”
David Garrett, who owns the former Hunt’s Department Store building in downtown Muskogee, expressed concerns with parts of the proposed ordinance he said are unclear. Garrett said while the Hunt’s building is unoccupied, it is being used for storage.
Garrett acknowledged recent problems with the structure’s exterior but said an engineer’s report shows the downtown building is structurally sound and asbestos free. But the low rental rates for downtown properties make it economically infeasible to refurbish or remodel the building for other uses.
“I am here to find out what the city wants,” Garrett said, reciting the history of his family ties with Muskogee. “My family wants to do what it can to help Muskogee. We are dedicated to help downtown Muskogee in whatever way we can.”
Robert Kelly, another owner of downtown Muskogee real estate, echoed Garrett’s concerns. Kelly also argued for better enforcement of the city code and existing provisions he said would achieve the goals sought by the proposed ordinance.
The property owners’ arguments drew a swift response from former City Councilor Janey Boydston and Sheryl Thygesen. Both women serve on the AIM committee assembled for the purpose of making Muskogee cleaner and more beautiful.
Boydston and Thygesen said the time to address the eyesore of vacant commercial buildings in various states of disrepair is now. Boydston said residents have made it clear that improving the city’s curb appeal is a high priority.
We have tried and tried and tried to get something done. We have to do something to clean up our town,” Boydston said about the AIM committee’s goals. “It’s like getting all dressed up to go to a party and you find out later you’ve got a big wad of spinach in your mouth.”
Thygesen said committee members have no problem with the owners of vacant commercial buildings that are well maintained. But vacant structures, both residential and commercial, often attract vagrants and pose other societal problems.
“We need to do something. What we are doing now is not working,” Thygesen said. “We are all trying to be a town of character, but you can’t be that if you don’t take care of your city.”
Planning Director Gary Garvin told commissioners several revisions were made since the proposed ordinance was first examined two weeks ago. Garvin asked for an additional two weeks to further research the issue to see how other municipalities deal with vacant commercial structures.
Commissioners, who have expressed some skepticism about the need for the proposed ordinance, granted the request. They will revisit the issue Sept. 3.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.