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.

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Hal Haeker is the mayor of Alma, Neb., pop. 1,133. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

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 city’s downtown, Haeker said, “That’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 there’s not a car or just two or three.”

“And then they come to downtown Alma,” he said, “and they say ‘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?’”

One of those busy business buildings on Alma’s Main Street collapsed recently. The old hardware store turned antique store’s roof caved in, becoming a crumbling eyesore in the city’s otherwise well-maintained downtown.

Alma has a busy downtown for a city of its size. Haeker says Alma’s status as Harlan County seat helps draw business to the area, as does the popular lakefront property of Harlan County reservoir. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“This is the lot where the building did collapse,” Haeker said, pointing to a cordoned-off lot sandwiched between two businesses.

The cost to demolish the building would have squeezed the city’s minimal budget. So Alma’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.

One of Alma’s Main Street buildings collapsed recently, damaging the two buildings on either side. The city received a grant to tear the building down. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“It’s very difficult and it’s very frustrating for small communities, or large communities for that matter, to try and a handle on these types of properties,” 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.

“Deconstruction is basically just taking a building apart piece by piece and reusing or recycling as much of it as they can,” Danahy explained, “rather than just taking a bulldozer and shoveling it into a hole or hauling it to a landfill.”
“It’s much cheaper, much easier and more economical to reuse something or recycle something than it is to produce something from raw materials,” he said. “So it’s really a win-win for everyone.”

But although the grant was introduced in 2009, so far only one community in Nebraska has been awarded the funds. And that’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 doesn’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.

A crumbling storefront in Monowi, Neb., pop. 1. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Gary Krumland, the assistant director for the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said abandoned properties have been a common complaint in Nebraska for years. “I think it’s increased in the last couple years,” he said. “Some 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.”

Like many other small Nebraska towns, Monowi doesn’t have the resources to pay for buildings to be demolished or re-built. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Krumland said abandoned buildings in disrepair can discourage people from moving in to small towns, aggravating the persistent problem of population loss. “A lot of cities do try to keep up the appearances, just to show that they are vital,” he said. “I’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 that’s in limbo that they can’t turn into new housing for people.”

Parts of Monowi, Neb. are just piles or rubble. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

But across the state, how to tackle abandoned buildings is a complicated issue. One of the reasons more communities haven’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. “In many instances, the owners are not very cooperative,” he said. “In many cases, they’re not even around or they can’t be found. So it makes it very difficult for the cities to do anything.”

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 that’s unlikely to change.

Back in Alma, Hal Haeker said the “hoops and hurdles” that come along with grant money can get in the way of rebuilding. But he said it’s also up to communities to make sure they do what they can to stay vital.

In Alma, Neb., mayor Haeker says the community is active, engaged and determined to keep the city vital. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“Knowing 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,” Haeker said. “We 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.”

Soon, a new gymnastics studio will take the place of the old demolished store in Alma. Haeker said the owner already has a business that’s attracted people from 100 miles around. And when those visitors come to Alma, he’ll make sure they have a good impression of this small town.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that have come into town, that have driven up and down the streets here, and basically said, ‘This is one of the cleanest towns I’ve seen,’” he said.

“But it takes a lot of work to do that.”


City to tackle abandoned homes, vacant lots

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