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Easements needed for BP facade grant

Meeting was last Tuesday at Belle Plaine Community Center

By JUDY SCHLESSELMAN, Star Press Union reporter

Belle Plaine residents and downtown business owners were brought up to date on the streetscape project during an informational meeting at the community center Oct. 27.

Many had questions about temporary easements the city would like to secure to downtown buildings so improvements could be made to the building façades.

The city will seek a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to help pay for façade improvements. It previously committed $150,000 to the façade project as part of the city’s $2 million contribution to the streetscape project.

In order for the city to use CDBG funding to improve privately owned buildings, it must have signed temporary easements from the owners, said Belle Plaine Community Development Corporation President Jennifer Zahradnik.

Some business owners at the meeting were concerned about how much control they would have over their properties and what they would be expected to pay for building improvements if they were to sign the five-to-seven-year easements. City Administrator Bill Daily and Mike Bell of RDG Design, the firm hired by the city to create the downtown master plan, assured them their needs and desires for their buildings would be of highest priority.

“Easement does not convey ownership,” Daily stressed. “We only want to be in the position to make improvements to them. It will be done on an individual basis and in consultation with the owner.”

Of the 70 current CDBG grant applicants, Belle Plaine is in the final 10 and must show a broad base of support for the easements to increase its chances of receiving the grant this year and in the future, Bell said.

If the city’s grant bid is successful, the amount available to improve each façade will depend upon the number of easements submitted. Total renovation may not be possible, Daily stated.

Bell emphasized the CDBG is a “one-time” shot to capture $500,000 to improve the fronts of downtown businesses. He pointed to the continuing structural decline of many of those buildings over the past decades.

“If we don’t invest in those facades at some point, you won’t have buildings,” he stated.

Daily said the streetscape project, funded by $2 million in bonds, is still on the table. It calls for remilling and resurfacing the middle lane of 12th Street between Seventh and Ninth Avenues, replacing sidewalk, waterline, storm sewer, street lighting, and adding site amenities, new signage and water line services to each building.

The city’s initial request for a $550,000 Community Action and Tourism (CAT) grant to bolster the streetscape project was denied. Disappointed, city officials contacted legislators and the governor, which resulted in a visit by Vision Iowa Director Regina Bailey, who suggested the city try again in January.

Canopies or awnings supported by poles or posts in the city right-of-way will come down under the streetscape plan. Building owners will be responsible for any repairs needed to the area behind the canopies. Owners who sign temporary easements could receive grant funding to help pay for the repairs.

Daily assured the group the city would work with business owners to minimize inconveniences, as well as assume liability, during streetscape construction.

Despite the sour economy, Daily said this is the best time to undertake a streetscape project. It will create construction jobs and improve the downtown area, one of the first places prospective residents and businesses visit when evaluating a city.

Daily pointed out that in the last year, three vacant downtown buildings were bought by new owners who have invested a great deal of money on improvements. He hopes the prospect of downtown revitalization played a role. “They must see something good going on,” Daily stated.

Zahradnik said she is willing to meet individually with building owners to discuss temporary easements or other aspects of the revitalization plan. She and Daily encouraged business owners to review the easement agreement with their lawyers.

UPDATED November 4, 2009 12:16 PM

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