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Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

St. Marys sprucing up downtown

Mayor: Renovation major goal

By Ed Gebert

The Arts Place facility on East Spring Street in St. Marys is an example of the. . .

ST. MARYS - Fixing up downtown buildings is a priority for mayor Patrick McGowan and his administration.
"We feel very strongly about this, and it stimulates businesspeople to want to come into town and do business here," the mayor said.
"St. Marys is no different than any other community in that we do have empty buildings downtown," said safety service director Greg Foxhoven. "I think the difference, for us, is that we are actively engaged in the revitalization of those downtown buildings."
Since McGowan took office in 2012, he said he has emphasized finding ways to refurbish the old buildings, especially in the downtown area. At least five have been saved from their rundown appearance and are receiving new life, he noted.
"These buildings were built at the end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, and it sort of encapsulates what our city is about and the historic nature of our city," McGowan said. "It kind of gives the citizens of St. Marys a window into the past as to who we are and what we are."
A prime example of this attitude is seen in the new home of Arts Place at 138 E. Spring St., Foxhoven said. Arts Place previously was paying rent for another downtown building when the organization was forced to move. Instead of simply moving out of St. Marys, Arts Place officials went to the city.
"So they came to us and asked, 'Where can we go?' We were aware of a building down here called the Party Shop," Foxhoven said, noting the building housed a retail shop downstairs and an apartment upstairs, where the shop owner had lived.
"We were able to determine that she was winding down in her career, so we talked to this lady to see if she was interested in selling the building," Foxhoven said.
The owner was interested, and they were able to make a deal, he added.
The building needed some work, Foxhoven said. The St. Marys Community Improvement Corp. bought it with money borrowed from the city. The store closed and the owner moved to a residence closer to her two daughters.
"So now, the downstairs is rented to Arts Place, and the upstairs is rented to a young couple. It's a very nice apartment," Foxhoven said. "This is a building that otherwise would have been empty. Arts Place remained in St. Marys. We were able to keep that business in town - in a downtown building."
The building is maintained by the city. The tenants pay rent to the CIC, which in turn repays the money to the city.
A similar situation occurred with the Wilson Building on Spring Street. Foxhoven said a few years ago, city officials were planning to tear it down. They were able to purchase it by paying the taxes owed by the previous owner.
Demolition was averted when officials were able to sell it to a developer/contractor, who refurbished the building for retail space and upstairs apartments, Foxhoven said.
McGowan said his administration has placed a priority on saving what is already in the downtown area by using the CIC and the Downtown Facade Improvement Program to keep active businesses in town and to improve what is there. The facade program offers a 50 percent match up to $5,000 for business owners who want to improve their building's appearance.
"I think it's a lot better to fix it up than it is to tear it down," McGowan said. "It may be a little more expensive in the long run to renovate, but it certainly does keep in character with our downtown."
The men agreed that one building owner has not cooperated in the efforts to improve downtown.
"There is one landlord who owns a block and a half downtown. We've reached out to him to sell two buildings, but he will not work with us. He just doesn't seem to have an interest in doing anything with the buildings that he owns," Foxhoven said.
"He's an absentee owner," McGowan added.
The city also is still involved with plans to restore the old grist mill on East High Street and is working with the state to better clean up the Miami-Erie Canal, which runs through town, McGowan said. Plans also are in place to repave Spring Street from Wayne to Spruce streets in the next five or six years.
"I think it shows the city's commitment to the downtown area," Foxhoven said.
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