By Tim Cox
The redevelopment of the former Mersman Furniture Co. into a low-income and senior citizen residential tract -- not the city's ongoing struggles with drinking water, streets and other issues -- is the hottest topic among Celina residents in recent years, some city officials say.
Celina City Council members Angie King and June Scott said they have fielded more telephone calls and comments on the Mersman redevelopment proposal than any issue during their time in office. Other city officials also said they have heard plenty from their constituents on the issue.
Brickyard Investments Ltd., which owns the former Mersman site, is applying for state tax credits so they can build 32 single family homes and 30 apartments, which will be owned and maintained by Buckeye Community Housing Foundation. Without the city's blessing, the tax credit application -- and the proposed $7 million project -- might not move forward, Brickyard representative Jerry Butler of Mendon said.
Brickyard and city officials are trying to put together a meeting next week to answer city officials' questions and concerns about the project. City officials then could give final approval to the resolutions of support for the project at their March 13 meeting.
King reiterated past concerns that the city does not need more low-income housing. She polled five area landlords and apartment complex managers, finding there are 44 current vacancies. With more competition in the market, some landlords could fail to create positive cash flow from their rental units and allow them to fall into disrepair, she said. King also questioned a feasibility study done by project organizers that calls the local rental market "slightly soft." King and other council members also expressed concerns that they believe the city eventually will be asked to chip in financially toward the project.
Butler said Brickyard Investments officials are prepared to do the project without city assistance toward infrastructure or clearing the three-block site. The only unknown factor is the environmental cleanup of the site, Butler said.
"The area that scares me is the unknowns of demolition," Butler said, noting that further contamination could increase the costs to clear the site.
Councilman Ed Jeffries also questioned whether additional housing is something the city needs. The Brickyard project calls for 62 new units while the city engineering office issued permits for only 63 units all of last year, he said.
Butler defended the project, noting that no similar housing exists in the city. The single-family homes would be rented and renters then would have the opportunity to buy the home after 15 years.
"We're giving people an opportunity to purchase a home that wouldn't have had it before," Butler said. "We feel very confident with the program."
If the housing project does not move forward, the aging Mersman complex likely would remain idle and remain an eyesore, Butler said.
"It's a facility that cannot be used and is dying a fast death," Butler said.
Councilman Rick Bachelor asked council members what the future of the property should be if they don't like the current redevelopment proposal.
"These aren't the most popular and exciting things that can be done with that site, but what are the alternatives?" Bachelor said.
"Housing is the only acceptable end use of the property," Butler said, noting the area is surrounded by residential development and that city officials already have rezoned the area for residential development.