Small towns struggle to deal with abandoned buildings
September 18th, 2012
Alma, NE – Among small communities struggling to remain vital and attract new residents, crumbling buildings are a sign of decay. A state grant program hopes to alleviate some of the burden on small towns to rebuild, but so far, only one community has been able to receive that aid.
Hal Haeker is the mayor of Alma, Neb. A small community in the central part of the state, Alma has a population of 1,133. But for such a small town, it has a pretty busy main street. As we walked along the cityâ€™s downtown, Haeker said, â€œThatâ€™s what a lot of people tell me is that, you know, they go to some of these other communities, and they go to their main street and thereâ€™s not a car or just two or three.â€
â€œAnd then they come to downtown Alma,â€ he said, â€œand they say â€˜There are a number of vehicles down here. How do you get all these, where are all these people going, why are all these people here?â€™â€
One of those busy business buildings on Almaâ€™s Main Street collapsed recently. The old hardware store turned antique storeâ€™s roof caved in, becoming a crumbling eyesore in the cityâ€™s otherwise well-maintained downtown.
â€œThis is the lot where the building did collapse,â€ Haeker said, pointing to a cordoned-off lot sandwiched between two businesses.
The cost to demolish the building would have squeezed the cityâ€™s minimal budget. So Almaâ€™s city administrator applied for a grant from the state to help defray the costs. And Alma became the first Nebraska city to receive the green light. Now, the building is entirely gone, and a construction crew was at work digging the foundation.
â€œItâ€™s very difficult and itâ€™s very frustrating for small communities, or large communities for that matter, to try and a handle on these types of properties,â€ said Steve Danahy, who manages the Waste Planning and Aid Unit at the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, which administers the grant. The grant was designed as a way to help cities demolish abandoned buildings. Or, really, deconstruct. To be eligible, the projects had to be tied to recycling and reuse.
â€œDeconstruction is basically just taking a building apart piece by piece and reusing or recycling as much of it as they can,â€ Danahy explained, â€œrather than just taking a bulldozer and shoveling it into a hole or hauling it to a landfill.â€
â€œItâ€™s much cheaper, much easier and more economical to reuse something or recycle something than it is to produce something from raw materials,â€ he said. â€œSo itâ€™s really a win-win for everyone.â€
But although the grant was introduced in 2009, so far only one community in Nebraska has been awarded the funds. And thatâ€™s not for lack of need. Drive through other communities nearby Alma, and the problem is obvious. Just 30 miles east, Riverton, Neb. is dotted with abandoned buildings. A village of just 89 people, Riverton doesnâ€™t have nearly enough resources to rebuild. Farther north in Monowi, Neb. population 1, many old buildings are simply piles of rubble that have never been cleaned up. And that story is repeated across the state.
Gary Krumland, the assistant director for the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said abandoned properties have been a common complaint in Nebraska for years. â€œI think itâ€™s increased in the last couple years,â€ he said. â€œSome of the speculation is that increase in foreclosures and other reasons like that. But it has seemed to become a problem in several communities across the state.â€
Krumland said abandoned buildings in disrepair can discourage people from moving in to small towns, aggravating the persistent problem of population loss. â€œA lot of cities do try to keep up the appearances, just to show that they are vital,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve even heard from one community that said that they have a housing shortage, they need more housing. But they also have some abandoned, vacant housing thatâ€™s in limbo that they canâ€™t turn into new housing for people.â€
But across the state, how to tackle abandoned buildings is a complicated issue. One of the reasons more communities havenâ€™t been able to take advantage of the state grant funds is that it required the cities to assume ownership of the properties. Steve Danahy said that has numerous inherent problems. â€œIn many instances, the owners are not very cooperative,â€ he said. â€œIn many cases, theyâ€™re not even around or they canâ€™t be found. So it makes it very difficult for the cities to do anything.â€
Danahy said the grant no longer requires city ownership upfront, and he hopes that will encourage more cities to apply and be awarded funds. But it also requires them to pay a portion of the deconstruction costs, which is still prohibitive for many cities and towns, and thatâ€™s unlikely to change.
Back in Alma, Hal Haeker said the â€œhoops and hurdlesâ€ that come along with grant money can get in the way of rebuilding. But he said itâ€™s also up to communities to make sure they do what they can to stay vital.
â€œKnowing Alma as I know Alma, when the building collapsed here on Main Street. Would it have gotten cleaned up and fixed and so forth? Absolutely,â€ Haeker said. â€œWe would have done that. But would it have taken a lot longer? Absolutely, it would have taken a lot longer. It would have cost the people of Alma a lot more to do it.â€
Soon, a new gymnastics studio will take the place of the old demolished store in Alma. Haeker said the owner already has a business thatâ€™s attracted people from 100 miles around. And when those visitors come to Alma, heâ€™ll make sure they have a good impression of this small town.
â€œI canâ€™t tell you the number of people that have come into town, that have driven up and down the streets here, and basically said, â€˜This is one of the cleanest towns Iâ€™ve seen,â€™â€ he said.
â€œBut it takes a lot of work to do that.â€
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