RDA stall could affect city addressing SIST properties

Questions raised about need for authority

The Shawano Common Council’s rejection this week of a blight district map proposed by the Redevelopment Authority could make it harder for the city to tackle a longstanding problem that was largely the reason for establishing the RDA in the first place.

That would be long-vacant and deteriorating buildings, primarily downtown but also along Green Bay Street, most of them owned by the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology and its subsidiaries.

“There have been concerns expressed repeatedly in Shawano about vacant buildings and their dilapidated condition in commercial areas,” said City Administrator Brian Knapp. “Without the RDA, it’s going it’s going to be difficult to address that.”

City officials have seldom referred directly to SIST properties in discussing blighted conditions, usually referring only obliquely to vacant and deteriorating properties.

At least one SIST property came up at Wednesday’s council meeting as Knapp addressed why property values in some areas of the city have gone down.

“We have a number of properties — Ponderosa and two or three others — that were revalued because of their significant deterioration due to the blight that exists there,” he said. “And that is what we are trying to arrest. That is the problem we are trying to address. And if we don’t arrest it, then we will continue to see and possibly continue to see significant reductions in property values that support the activities of the city, the tax base that supports the activities of the city.”

Mayor Jeanne Cronce said in an interview Friday that complaints about vacant SIST properties were not the only reason that the RDA was formed.

“It was also to provide assistance for people who want to rehabilitate their properties,” she said. “A lot of the things the RDA can do, the city can’t.”

SIST properties on the RDA priority list include vacant properties at 201 N. Main St. and 202 N. Washington St.; the former Subway at 951 E. Green Bay St.; the former Taco John’s restaurant at 1214 E. Green Bay St.; a property at 143 S. Main St. being rented to Hunan’s Chinese Restaurant; vacant properties at 303 and 311 E. Green Bay St. and 214 and 216 S. Main St.; as well as a vacant lot at Fourth and Main streets.

Also on the list is the former Ponderosa Steak House at 1247 E. Green Bay St., which was recently purchased at a sheriff’s sale by VDG LLC.

The SIST properties at at 143 S. Main St. and 214 S. Main St. were inspected last month by health and safety officials.

Building inspector Brian Bunke said the inspections at both locations showed damage due to water and other problems.

The matter was expected to be handed off to the RDA to determine how to proceed, though that’s up in the air until the RDA’s proposed redevelopment boundaries and an action plan are approved.

At this point, the RDA is still in operation and is seeking input from council members on new map boundaries ahead of its next meeting on Thursday. The council on Wednesday felt the boundaries should be redrawn to take some properties out.

Any redesigned blight district would have to include at least 50 percent of properties considered blighted in some way.

Without boundaries approved by the council, the RDA would be unable to go forward with an action plan for dealing with blighted properties, which would raise the question of whether the RDA even needs to exist.

“That’s a reasonable question,” Knapp said.

It was also a question raised at Wednesday’s council meeting by Alderwoman Lisa Hoffman, who wondered if the RDA’s redevelopment district was redundant given that most of the properties included are already part of blight elimination districts.

Those would be Tax Incremental Finance districts 4 and 6 along South Main Street and East Green Bay street.

“If TIF 4 and TIF 6 already exist and we have already determined them blighted, and (properties) already qualify for financial assistance from the city, why does this redevelopment area need to exist at all?” Hoffman said.

Knapp said that while the city can already exercise many of the same powers, the RDA provides for “a more elegant tool” that removes a political body like the council from making property determinations and allows for more citizen input.

“The intention is to make it more transparent and clear and get more public input and require public hearings,” he said.

“If you do take a property as a Redevelopment Authority, it requires a public hearing,” he said. “The city council doesn’t need a public hearing to do that. After the building inspector has done everything he can to bring a property into compliance, if you decide it’s necessary to take that further step and for the city to acquire that property, then you as the city council need to meet probably in closed session to talk about the legal ramifications and make decisions about whether or not this is a prudent thing to do. You’re doing it on your own with staff input and without any citizen input.”

Knapp said the RDA can also provide more assistance to property owners than the city can.

Some of the opportunities available to property owners through the RDA could include a variety of federal, state and local home improvement and facade grants, low-interest loans and loans from the city’s and county’s revolving loan funds, brownfield grants for properties that could be environmentally contaminated, and additional financial assistance from the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The RDA can also do its own borrowing, which would not effect the city’s borrowing limits.

There are steps to address blighted properties the city can take without a Redevelopment Authority, but those tools are “more blunt, less transparent and not as friendly,” Knapp said in an interview Thursday.

There are ordinances that “could be enforced more strictly,” he said, and at the more extreme end, there is the possibility of condemnation and raze and remove orders “for significantly impaired properties.”

Knapp and RDA officials have said, however, that the city hopes to work in cooperation with property owners to improve their properties.