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Downtown debated at Roundtable restart

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Community buy-in for an OCRA grant the City of Marion, the Grant County Economic Growth Council and Main Street Marion are working to pursue fell into question at the first meeting of a renewed Downtown Roundtable forum for downtown business owners, nonprofits and city officials.

Bill Reece, owner of the 100 S. Washington St. building, said he'd rather see the money invested locally, perhaps in Main Street Marion, rather than held in escrow by the city while it waits to see if it has won the grant.

“If I recall, the likelihood of us getting the grant is zero on the first try,” Reece said.

OCRA Liaison Andrea Kern had told attendees at a previous downtown revitalization meeting that cities who apply typically don't win the grant on their first attempt.

Bobby Pittman, who is working on starting a music venue downtown, seemed to agree with Reece, saying the grant would require a lot of work that wouldn't have an immediate impact on the community.

Reece and Pittman both emphasized the need to develop private capital rather than relying on public money and grants.

Marion Mayor Jess Alumbaugh agreed that private investment was key to the city's revitalization.

“The common denominator for rural communities (succeeding) isn't the government fixing everything, it's buy-in from the private sector,” the mayor said.

Peterson said Main Street Marion was pursuing ways it could offer incentives for for-profit businesses to move into the downtown area.

But other business owners present Thursday morning supported applying for the grant.

Dwight Lewton of Total Computer Solutions said delaying the grant application would just continue to push back the time when Marion could reasonably hope to win the state money, which could total up to $600,000.

“We need to set ourselves up for the next year getting the grant,” Lewton said.

Lewton said since he bought his building in 1998 its property value has declined by over 60 percent, and he'd like to see it rise back up, something he thinks the OCRA grant improvements could help achieve.

The roundtable meeting, organized by the Growth Council, Main Street Marion and the Marion-Grant County Chamber of Commerce, was meant to generate input on the direction of the city's OCRA grant application.

The city has to choose whether to focus its application on money for facade improvements for downtown buildings or streetscape improvements such as sidewalks, curbs, streetlights and other infrastructure needs.

Michelle Doyle, of Halstead Architects, said she'd favor streetscape improvements over facade improvements, since many of the building owners who are invested in downtown have already completed or at least begun facade improvements.

Grant funds can't retroactively pay for such improvements, Kern told downtown stakeholders last year, and the facade improvement program requires investment from individual building owners.

“A lot of people who care to renovate their buildings have already done so, and the ones who haven't are mostly absent landlords who probably wouldn't be involved in a facade program anyway,” Doyle said.

Doyle and others noted if the city pursues the streetscape improvements it will need a long-term maintenance plan, not just a one-time investment.

“There's a trash can outside my building that hasn't been emptied in six months,” Doyle said by way of example.

Ultimately, not many weighed in on the facade versus streetscapes debate, as the discussion ranged from ways to bring more people downtown, to the truck route running through downtown, to how to leverage Marion's history to rebrand the city as a destination.

But according to Grant County Historian Bill Munn, just the fact that collaboration is taking place in meetings like Thursday's gives the city a leg up compared to previous failed grant bids, like Marion's four unsuccessful Stellar Communities applications. Munn said those previous attempts lacked community buy-in and evidence that the community was making efforts on its own to move downtown forward.

The Thursday morning discussion was the first in a series of monthly meetings that the Chamber, Growth Council and Main Street Marion are restarting.

Previously active for some time in 2015 and 2016, the roundtable is meant to be a place to “build trust” and develop “actionable things” the city, nonprofits and downtown business owners can do to move downtown forward, according to Kylie Jackson, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

“I hope it will be a space to communicate with all the different aspects of the downtown interest in the community,” said Heidi Peterson, executive director of Main Street Marion. “We really want to promote the collaboration of the many multiple interests.”