Welcome to Main Street Waterbury and the month of May.  I really love this time of year and how beautiful Downtown Waterbury looks. The flowers are in bloom. The planters on the sidewalks look colorful and vibrant.  The streets are getting cleaner and our thoughts turn towards a new beginning.  More people are outside walking, shopping, dining and enjoying the freshness of spring.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how beautiful the newly restored Cass Gilbert City Hall building will look with its water fountain operating at the entourage and the landscaped grounds revealing their new color.

   Yet, some things are not always looking so fresh.  Downtown Waterbury, like so many other downtowns across the U.S., has its share of worn vacant buildings.  Some are stale looking, having not had any major renovation or face lift for years.  Others are on their way to that point.  While we’ve made some progress with the Façade improvement program and continue to do so, the fact remains that dealing with vacant buildings in any downtown is an ongoing challenge.

    But it cannot be ignored any longer.  We’ve got to find a way to fill our vacant buildings.  I’ve already noted in previous columns how we can convert our vacant buildings and what should go in them.  For the sake of first time readers to this column, I’ll briefly mention our goals of increasing our residential density in downtown Waterbury by providing more market-rate housing opportunities. This can be accomplished by converting our historic buildings into mixed-use development projects and adaptively using these once commercial buildings into part residences and part business/retail.  We already have examples of this with 70 Bank Street and the Apothecaries Hall building.

  In June of 2010, Renaissance Downtown, a designated “preferred developer”, held a two day work shop with downtown building owners to talk about this very topic.  Their mission was to convince the owners to work together along with them on a downtown development plan. This is an ongoing process and as of this writing, they are concentrating on one area in downtown and trying to work with those building owners exclusively.  Any plan would have to incorporate use of existing vacant buildings.

   Regardless of whose plan is utilized or which development company is used, the fact remains that vacant buildings carry with them a tremendous cost just by remaining vacant.  According to Donovan Rypkema, a nationally renowned downtown real estate and preservation expert, “an empty downtown commercial building has substantial impact on the community’s overall economy.”  Rypkema gives a hypothetical example of a vacant small building in a typical downtown community and what it could annually cost the local economy. 

   Retail sales – $320,000
   Secondary retail sales – $180,000
   Salaries – $38,400
   Rents – $16,000
   Property taxes – $1680
   Business profits – $14,336
   Bank deposits – $12,160
   Utility collections – $8,000
   Loan demand – $34,400
   Advertising revenues – $5,120
   Total – $630,096

   That’s lost revenue that will never be realized as long as these buildings stay vacant.  Plus it doesn’t even factor in the effect on values to surrounding buildings that are not necessarily vacant.

   Rypkema goes on to say, “While these are only hypothetical figures, they clearly demonstrate the important relationship between commercial activity and real estate value.  They are dependent on each other and the overall economic value of the downtown comes from this interdependence.”

   So while we continue to debate the model, the approach, whose plan to use, what development teams will make it happen, ad nausea I might ad, one thing remains a constant.  Some of our most cherished buildings are still vacant.

   Some property owners appear to be in gridlock not really sure what they want to do, even after years of sitting with their vacant building.  Some seem to be waiting for the “white knight” to ride into town and sprinkle scads of cash about.  After all, who can say no to “free money”?  In the meantime the vacant building “cost meter” continues to ratchet upwards. 

   Main Street Waterbury has talked about the solution.  We’ve shown examples of how to get it done, from other communities across the U.S and right here in our own State of Connecticut.  We’ve given statistics and testimonials.  We’ve even brought in national experts to talk to our authorities and building owners. We’ve advocated for development policy like expanding the Enterprise Zone into downtown Waterbury to allow tax abatement to spur development, façade improvement programs, federal and state historic tax credit programs and new market credits.  We even have one relatively new building owner making it happen already and showing positive results.  The hope here is that others will jump on the bandwagon after seeing it done in practice.  As the old adage says,  “You could lead a horse to water….”

   All the national trends are showing extreme interest in getting development back to the city centers and downtowns across America.  Yet, here locally, efforts move at an excruciatingly slow pace or not at all.  But the moaning continues.  That’s seems to be a given.  We look to local and state government for answers yet complain when they interfere with private enterprise. At the end of the day Mr. & Mrs. Private Developer and Mr. & Mrs. Private Building Owner are going to have to sit across from each other and hammer out a deal. 

   Main Street Waterbury stands ready to help.  We are conveners.  We foster the partnerships necessary for development to occur.  We have access to a pool of national and statewide downtown development specialists that can speak to us on tax credits, parking, permitting, adaptive reuse, retail recruiting, housing, historic preservation, and any other related downtown development issues.  We have a very talented group of volunteers, many with professional experience in marketing, graphic design, architecture, commercial real estate, law, insurance, finances, retail, and commercial development.  Our group has been working very hard to lay the groundwork for continuing development.

   The clock is ticking.  It’s time to act. 

   If you would like to join us, you can contact my office at 203-757-0701 ext. 302 or email me at crosa@mainstreetwaterbury.com and as always, keep thinking Main Street Waterbury.  Culture, Education, Business.