Committee will present revitalization plans

SALEM – A committee that’s been exploring ways to revitalize downtown Salem will report its findings and recommendations to city council members during the Committee of the Whole meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 19 in council chambers.

Scott Cahill, the downtown building owner and Salem resident who kicked off the process, said at least 100 or more people have been involved with the Salem Downtown Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and the formation of the proposal to be presented.

“I really think it’s a very good plan,” he said, noting that it’s different than what he had originally proposed. “We’re asking our government to participate in a plan developed by their own constituency.”

He said the condition of downtown Salem should have never gotten to the point where it is now, with buildings in disrepair and some close to being lost that can’t be replaced.

The city will be asked to incur some costs, but he said the revitalization needs to happen and they’ll be asking the city to take a more active role to ensure the downtown’s viability.

The TAC made up of volunteers, building owners, business owners and interested parties started meeting in October and formed four subcommittees to look at different areas needed to return the downtown to its former vibrancy.

According to an overview of the project, the Proportion Subcommittee looked at the proportion of green space, parking, residences and commercial space. The Standards Subcommittee looked at the minimum standards for occupancy of the buildings. The Fiscal Subcommittee studied the fiscal needs of revitalization and the Building Evaluation Subcommittee looked at grading buildings for their current structural condition and their historical and architectural significance.

The TAC met once in October and December and twice in January, revealing the results of the subcommittees and receiving public comment about the ideas. Save Downtown Salem signs and buttons are popping up now to promote the project.

Cahill said the city will be asked to do several things, including developing a citywide building code, forming a building inspection department with a local inspector so approvals for renovations can be handled locally instead of through the state, take action against nuisance buildings and take them under current nuisance statutes and raze them if necessary and take on some of the costs through the issuance of bonds or loans so that a proposed non-profit entity can hire professionals in real estate/leasing and construction to draw potential businesses into the downtown area.

He said that the TAC wanted to minimize the cost for building owners to renovate and to bring buildings into compliance with minimum standards. He said the idea is to get the buildings into compliance so they can be fully occupied with apartments on upper floors and he said they found that it wouldn’t take much to make them safety compliant.

He said for an estimated $3,800, with a 30-foot storefront as a model, they could install a heat-sensitive monitored alarm system, signage for exiting the building and battery-powered lighting in case of a fire. The city will be asked to negotiate a non-exclusive alarm monitoring contract that could cover the downtown buildings.

For the building department, he said it could be funded through fees for building permits and inspections. As for nuisance buildings, he said the city has the right to step in and abate the liability and then go to court to recoup the money.

According to the Proportions Subcommittee, parking and green space were deficient downtown, with a suggestion to add between 200 and 250 spaces in small lots behind the buildings on State and Broadway and accessed by right turns off of State Street. Planters and fountains could be incorporated into the downtown landscape for green space and national tenants could be sought for space on Pershing and Second streets.

Cahill said building renovations would be driven by building owners, but with assistance through the process with possible renovation loans through the non-profit group. Owners could then realize income from the increased occupancy and the city could realize income tax income from an increase in people living and working in the downtown.

According to a recent overview about the project, construction on the downtown revitalization could begin this summer in half-block segments, with newly renovated residential and commercial spaces available for lease.

Cahill said they’re also looking at a possible business incubator for specialty retail opportunities which could draw people into the downtown to see craftsman at work on glass blowing, blacksmithing, candlemaking, pottery making and tin fabrication in an artisan district. He said there could be a store for Salem memorabilia, restaurants, a bakery or micro-brewery and other possibilities.

The occupancy rate of downtown buildings is currently about 15 percent, but the occupancy rate is expected to increase to over 50 percent by the summer of 2014 after revitalization, with a target of 70 percent by 2015.

Cahill owns a building on State Street which he plans to renovate and also has buildings on Ellsworth Avenue and Second Street, along with some homes.

Free Save Downtown Salem lawn signs and buttons are available by emailing or by calling 804-513-8027.