David Roach Democrat Mayor
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In 2009, when President Obama convinced Congress to pass an $800 billion economic stimulus package, the promise was that massive spending on ready-to-go "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects would create thousands of jobs and propel the country out of recession.
In fact, as Forbes Magazine later reported, federal spending on infrastructure actually decreased -- perhaps, as the president himself later admitted, "shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected . . . there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects."
In other words, money can accomplish only so much if the mechanism is not in place to spend it effectively.
In Fort Wayne, however, the mechanism does exist to identify residential properties that threaten not only aesthetics but public safety -- which is the main reason why the city has received about $7.5 million that will allow it to demolish hundreds of dangerous eyesores years earlier than would have been possible otherwise.
"This is huge," said Cindy Joyner, director of Neighborhood Code Enforcement, whose budget normally allows the department to order the removal of about 65 structurally deficient homes every year. "This is the equivalent of several years' worth (of demolition) for us."
But the "blight elimination program," funded through the U.S. Treasury and Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, is different -- and not just because owners must agree to sell their properties.
For one thing, Joyner said, the city has been able to identify about 1,000 homes eligible for demolition through the program. And although they are in bad shape and abandoned, they aren't necessarily bad enough to justify a demolition order -- even if the city had enough money to enforce it. The homes in this program are mostly on high-visibility corridors and have been the source of break-ins, vagrancy, fires and other problems that have generated calls to various city departments, according to Heather Presley-Cowen, deputy director of community development.
Once the houses are removed, she said, the lots could be given or sold to adjacent property owners or made available for redevelopment.
But the significance of the money received and its potential impact on neighborhood well-being should not overshadow the fact that Fort Wayne might not have received as much funding as it has if not for the people and technology that identified the eligible homes. After receiving $4.7 million last June, it was awarded another $2.8 million in November -- grants Presley-Cowen said are a tribute to the ability of Neighborhood Code, the Housing and Neighborhood Development Services department and other city agencies to identify eligible properties and to implement the program in a timely and responsible manner.
"We've never had an opportunity like this. It's probably the most productive thing I've ever seen. It will really open up the neighborhoods," said City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, who serves as HANDS president. "It caught us by surprise, but shows how good we are."
Joyner said the homes identified for possible removal are too far gone to justify renovation, and said code-enforcement citations will not be used in order to persuade owners to sell. The city can pay no more than $6,000 for a home without a basement and more more than $10,000 for houses with basements. To date, the city has acquired 41 properties and razed seven homes, but hundreds more should could come down eventually.
As a conservative, and with the federal government more than $18 trillion in debt, I might wish such a program were not necessary -- or at least funded another way. But take a drive through some of Fort Wayne's older and lower-income neighborhoods and you'll see the necessity: blight that robs streets of their vitality, and neighboring property owners of the will to invest. And the reality is that, as Joyner mentioned, the city cannot keep up with the scope of the problem that, for whatever reason, represents private ownership's ability or willingness to maintain property appropriately.
Replacing ratty old homes with new ones or even grass -- and, hopefully, finding responsible owners and tenants -- is not the worst thing government has done with our money. In this case, at least, city officials deserve some credit for that.
DOA for downtown arena?
Last October I reported that the city was spending $40,000 to study the feasibility of building a "mid-size" downtown arena. Spokesman John Perlich said an update is planned soon, but Mayor Tom Henry is apparently telling people construction is unlikely -- possibly because the cost is projected at up to $80 million.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.