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Mercer: City’s empty storefronts don’t breed development

EAST LIVERPOOL–Sometimes buildings do have to be vacant until the right occupant comes along; however, they shouldn’t be habitually empty.

The city of East Liverpool’s Licensing and Economic Development met briefly Thursday afternoon to pitch ideas on how they could improve economic development.

The Licensing and Economic Development committee, which is headed by John Mercer, discussed a possible registration fee structure for vacant or partially vacant buildings. In addition to an initial $100 registration fee for the first six months of vacancy, the property owner would spend $500 for six months, $100 for 12 months, $2500 for the second year and $5000 on buildings that are going to be unoccupied for 25 months or more.

The current protocol requires no additional fees but an initial $400 flat fee, while the new structure, which is being pondered by council, would encourage property owners to either rent the buildings quicker or to make sure they appear occupied from the street level.

Mercer explained that city storefront would be required to have a well maintained display that is visually appealing beyond a “for rent” sign. This could consist of decorative or historical items, artwork, professional advertising, curtains, etc.

“It is a huge problem throughout the nation – not just in East Liverpool. Empty storefronts do not encourage development,” he added.

The display would have to pass city approval and cover half of the display area where appropriate, and non-permanent displays must be rotated every 90 days.

For uncooperative property owners, a fine will be levied after 90 days of $50 monthly. This would increase to $100 per month after six months. Initially owners would be warned after 30 days of incompliance.

Mercer also circulated media coverage regarding communities that are turning vacant retail spaces into pop-up business establishments.

In an article published on the CityLab website, the author discussed how a Boston non-profit demonstrated how empty storefronts can be transformed into instant “social infrastructure.” CultureHouse have taken these vacant storefronts and turned them into pop-up public faces, hosting game nights, ping pong tournaments or movie screening while paying no rent for the sites.

As John Surico writes, “If you look at a street that has completely empty windows, people will feel more bored and less happy. Simply putting something in those windows changes the way people interact with the street. They’re much more likely to choose walking, or some more active transportation mode.”

Last month, the City of Columbiana embraced the business model after consultant Deb Brown had brunched it during her embedded experience in February. The pop-up concept gives business owners an opportunity to try out new locations before potentially becoming more permanent, or just get their name and items before the public on a temporary basis.

Properties in Columbiana possibly being utilized are in the areas of South Main Street.

Columbiana city Manager Lance Willard confirmed that during a visit in Seattle, he learned that the city had as much as 75 percent placement of their pop-ups.

The committee also approved a request to use $5,000 from the city’s tourism budget towards paying for a contract with the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, which will study the city’s land use, zoning, historic structures and districts, current building conditions, planned investments, traffic, landscape, lighting and signage. The East Liverpool Community Partnership for Revitalization is also involved in this project, according to Mercer.

Currently the CUDC is working on projects for Cleveland’s Madison Avenue near the Detroit Shoreway and Mount Pleasant’s revitalization strategy.

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