Community collaboration results in demolition of buildings, park expansion

A downtown eyesore that has worn out its welcome is on its way to becoming a community asset.  The fire-ravaged buildings at 146 and 148 S. Main St. are about to be razed thanks to a major community collaboration. In their place, for at least the time being, will be an expansion of Founders Park.

What began as a conversation between Dean Jacob, president and CEO of Marion Community Foundation, and local real estate developer Lois Fisher, gathered both steam and partners to develop the potential of this downtown property.

The situation began with an Easter morning fire in 2014 that destroyed two buildings near the intersection of Main and Church streets, leaving a gutted mess and an expensive problem.

“The discovery of asbestos in the roofing materials caused a conundrum,” Fisher said. “It tripled the demolition costs and, while the building owners wanted to see the demolition as much as anyone else, it was getting prohibitively expensive. Their insurance coverage did not include that kind of contingency.”

Recalling situations like the Lonz Winery on Lake Erie’s Middle Bass Island which collapsed in 2000 and sat in ruins for more than 15 years due to asbestos issues and astronomical repair costs, as well as the reopened Carlisle Building in Chillicothe which sat vacant for 12 years after a major fire, Jacob said, “We did not want a situation like that in Marion. This is a project we thought Marion Community Foundation could help move forward.”

According to Beth Meadows, chair of Downtown Marion, Inc., “Having burned out buildings in downtown was not helping our cause to revitalize Marion. We were constantly being asked what would be done about it. The bottom line was the funding did not exist.”

Meadows and Katie Steinberger from the Marion City/County Regional Planning Commission authored a $35,000 grant request, which Marion Community Foundation’s Grants Committee and Board of Directors approved from the Robert M. and Dorothy C. Wopat Community Fund.

“Our grant got the ball rolling,” said Jacob, “and had the intended effect of encouraging several community organizations, agencies, and individuals to get involved and contribute to this effort.”

The plan, as it has come together, involves the demolition of the two damaged Main Street buildings. The neighboring property at 150-152 S. Main St., owned by Brad Belcher and Michael Belcher, was razed last year as the start of this project. Once all of the buildings are removed, the existing Founders Park will be expanded.  Phase 1, which includes the demolition, removal of debris, leveling the ground, and planting of grass, is now expected to cost $135,100.  The resulting green space, according to Mayor Scott Schertzer, will be used for the public’s benefit.

“We envision a downtown gathering space that will actually be used,” he said, and that a task force will be formed to visit other communities and explore possible uses.

“We’ve seen the success of downtown events such as the loft tours, Taste of Marion, Third Thursdays, and Miles for Marion,” said Fisher. “We heard repeatedly during such events that people really want Marion’s downtown to have a thriving, cultural life.”

Meadows, who already calls this project one of Downtown Marion’s biggest accomplishments of 2017, said all of the involved parties will have a voice on the task force and “collaboration” is the theme of the project.

That collaboration includes Marion Community Foundation, Lois Fisher, Mayor Schertzer, the Marion County Commissioners, Marion City Council, Law Director Mark Russell, Marion City/County Regional Planning Commission, Downtown Marion Inc., and the business and property owners Merle Randolph, Jack Randolph, Bill and Tammie Beechum, Michael Belcher, and Brad Belcher.

A key component that moved the project forward, in addition to the funding, was the Belchers’ donation of their adjacent building.

“We are very appreciative of owners Brad and Michael Belcher,” said Jacob. “Their less damaged building would have stood in the center of the project and they chose to donate it in support of this community effort.”

In addition to the Wopat Community Fund grant from Marion Community Foundation, the funding collaboration includes multiple sources — insurance proceeds, a fund raising effort on the part of Downtown Marion, Inc., a grant from the Sisler Family Fund at Marion Community Foundation, and contributions from the City, County and several local organizations.  Project funding is being coordinated by Ken Lengieza, Director of Marion City/County Regional Planning Commission. According to Assistant Director Evelyn Warr-Cummings, the City and County are contributing $30,000 and $15,000, respectively, from revolving loan funds from prior grants.

“We are able to access the Community Development Block Grant funds for this project because building demolition and remediation qualifies as a beautification project and one which removes blight,” said Warr-Cummings.

“This project has come out of the dream and into the reality phase,” said Warr-Cummings.  Contracts to begin the demolition were recently signed and work is expected to begin without delay.

The City-owned parking lot between the property and Tuffy Auto Service Center may be incorporated into the project.  Additionally, the City has committed to maintaining the space in the future.

“We realized sometimes development projects don’t take place without someone pushing the issue off of center,” said Jacob. “We may have started the conversation, but the bottom line is all parties got on board to start creating a nice public venue in the heart of our city.”

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