Blight was one of our top issues when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, and it’s right there waiting for us as we begin to emerge from quarantine in late May.
But the folks on the front lines of this battle have not been waiting out COVID-19.
They’ve been studying the blight problem, mapping out a strategy for handling it and even putting forward money to help offset the costs.
Blighted structures have a negative effect on communities aesthetically, financially and in terms of health and wellness.
Abandoned structures can attract weeds and trash, vagrants and vermin – putting stress on law enforcement and property values.
“Frankly, blighted buildings are just something that impacts the entire community,” Johnstown Community and Economic Development Director John Dubnansky said in a recent Tribune-Democrat report.
On Tuesday, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority’s board voted unanimously to contribute funds toward the demolition of one of Johnstown’s most prominent eyesores – the Conrad Building, at the corner of Franklin and Vine streets downtown.
JRA pledged $66,000, which will be a post-razing reimbursement. Johnstown City Council had previously voted to pursue $200,000 in state grant funding for bringing down the Conrad – with the city taking over the site, for a price of $1, after the crumbling structure has been removed.
While the Conrad Building is among the more visible and controversial blighted structures – numerous efforts have been made to save the Conrad for commercial or educational purposes – there are many spots that need attention.
In late April, City Council received a report from its Blight Task Force concerning how the municipality might tackle the nearly 900 blights that dot its landscape thanks to population decline and out-migration.
The 23-member group, comprised of representatives from business and government, produced a 47-page report that recommends leaning heavily on Act 90 of 2010, a state law designed to hold the owners of the properties responsible for their condition.
Act 90 – the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act – allows for liens on owners’ other properties, denial of permits for individuals behind on their taxes or code upgrades, and even criminal action against repeat code violators.
The task force also recommended the development of a land bank for getting blighted properties back into use, and prioritization of structures to be demolished as funding is available – concepts that already were in motion in Johnstown.
The task force’s recommendations are not binding. The city can implement the plan fully, in part or not at all.
But, as Barry Gallagher, chairman of the Johnstown Planning Commission and a member of the task force, said: “Quite frankly, a plan is no better than its implementation.”
The city and other area municipalities will have supportive partners in any blight-reduction effort.
The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown has helped with work in the Moxham neighborhood, where the school was founded before moving to Richland Township. The Community Foundation for the Alleghenies has made more than $800,000 available for projects in the West End area of town.
“One of the many problems with blight is it creates a downward spiral for a block, for a neighborhood, for a city,” Mike Kane, executive director of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, told our Dave Sutor.
Kane said efforts in the West End are bearing fruit.
“You can see the change in the West End,” he said.
“You can see people have gone ahead and fixed up their properties in the West End, as a result of it. We hope that happens throughout the city as we’re able to be able to do more.”
The Community Foundation recently rolled out $657,000 for blight projects in Prospect, Hornerstown and Kernville.
The city already spent nearly that amount knocking down 138 blights in 2019-19, with another $221,000 in work set for the current year.
The redevelopment authority is accepting bids for the demolition of 52 buildings.
Eventually they will be gone – along with that tall, thin brick edifice that seems ready to collapse into the Stonycreek River at any moment.
Although the Conrad Building is steeped in history and is significant architecturally, we don’t see an alternative to knocking it down – and the sooner the better.
Safety and economic vitality are at stake as Johnstown continues the work to clear away blight.