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REALTOR® Leads Efforts to Revitalize a Main Street

June 11, 2013

Rick Stallard is a self described “believer.” A convert, no less.

A REALTOR® for 24 years, Stallard was feeling a little uneasy last year at the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) Washington, D.C. meeting when he was advised to consider working with The National Trust Main Street Center on a plan to revitalize his hometown of Seville.

The village of Seville — which will celebrate its bicentennial anniversary in 2016 — is 2.6 square miles and has a population of just under 3,000 people. Reflective of its near 200-year history, the village of Seville has architecturally significant buildings throughout the downtown area and has residential neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the commercial area.

It is the typical downtown in Small Town USA. And from Stallard’s perspective, it was in danger of becoming another blighted downtown.

After hearing the advice at the NAR meeting to work with the National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC), the process conjured up certain images in Stallard’s head, he confesses. His first thoughts were of restrictive review boards, oversight committees and property owners having to fight for their rights.

To him, it seemed contrary to what he had advocated over the years in his capacity as a REALTOR® and member of the Medina County Board of REALTORS®, Ohio Association of REALTORS® and, most recently, as a village of Seville Councilman. In those roles, Stallard said, he has been an advocate of private property rights.

Nonetheless, he considered the advice sage and wanted to pursue the process and available funding that would help the village of Seville remain an economically viable community well into the 21st century.

So Stallard left the NAR meeting in Washington and returned to Ohio to work with the Medina County Board of REALTORS® to apply for an NAR Smart Growth Grant. The Medina County Board of REALTORS®, which represents 618 REALTORS® in north eastern Ohio, requested and received a $15,000 grant.

The grant money was supplemented by the Seville Chamber of Commerce, which committed another $2,500 for the assessment and strategies to implement NTMSC’s Main Street Four Point Approach®.

“I am now a believer,” said Stallard who on October 8 through 10 met with two members of a National Trust Main Street Center assessment team — independent urban planner and owner of Washington-D.C.-based Civic Strategies Group Doug Loescher and National Trust Main Street Center senior program officer Teresa Lynch.

NAR Managing Director of Community and Political Affairs Joseph Molinaro also joined the assessment team which, met with Stallard, school officials, downtown businesses, residents and any party that had an interest in revitalization efforts.

Loescher said that Stallard’s initial parade-of-horribles reaction is not unlike many others’.

“The perception that preservation and preservation groups are going to hinder development is very common and widespread,” said Loescher, who added, “I feel one of my jobs is often to go in and try to dispel some of the apprehensions.”

The negative reaction usually stems from a local experience, he said, adding the more local the preservation movement, usually the more restrictive the ordinances and rules.

“The national preservation movement typically is more of education and technical assistance programs,” said Loescher.

Specific to the village of Seville the NTMSC assessment team was asked to look at three particular areas of worry for the city: two brown-fields at the edge of downtown; high vacancy rates for downtown ground retail; and the closing of a 68,000-square-foot school built in 1916. It issued a 36-page analysis complete with dozens of recommendations.

In the five months since following these recommendations, which Stallard describes as a blueprint, improvements in all three areas have been made.

“They gave us the blueprint in how to go forward. We have been following those steps, implementing them one at a time, and it’s really starting to pay off,” he said. “There’s a resurgence and things are going in the right direction again.”

What Stallard calls a blueprint, The National Trust Main Street Center calls the Main Street Four Point Approach®. The methodology has been applied in 45 states, has helped funnel $53.6 billion to 1,200 Main Street commercial districts, and nearly 230,000 buildings have been rehabilitated since the program was launched in 1980. The efforts also have helped create nearly 105,000 new businesses, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In short, the approach stresses four points for long term commercial revitalization: Design; Promotion; Economic Restructuring and Organization. The Main Street Four Point Approach® also includes eight over-arching values that apply to the four core principles — including involving the public and the private sectors in decision making and taking an incremental approach that begins with small projects.

A key recommendation, said Stallard, was something that no one in Seville had previously considered, despite its near 200-year history: apply for and establish a National Register Historic District for downtown.

It is key, Stallard said, because the city can fully leverage potential funding, tax credits and other incentives. Additionally, the honorific designation can lessen the burden on property owners interested in making property improvements because they won’t be required to meet the building code requirements that apply to new construction.

That’s been a draw, Stallard said, to property owners and tenants willing to locate the businesses downtown.

“The more lax building requirements have helped people feel safe about investing, going forward and locating their businesses here,” he said.

Perhaps the thorniest issue for Seville and the biggest impediment for redevelopment were the brownfields, both of which were the sites of two former gas stations. While the assessment report notes that the gas stations are an eyesore to some, the assessment team found that the gas stations — built in the 1920s and 1930s during the Art Deco era — have “architectural details which could enhance their potential for redevelopment.”

The properties are in foreclosure and in need of remediation. National Trust Main Street Center recommended that Seville contact the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for guidance on the process to be followed and potential funding available. The NTMSC also noted that neither gas station was listed in Ohio as a brownfield.

Medina County has received Environmental Protection Agency grants that can be used for brownfield evaluations and Stallard said the village of Seville will apply for $4,000 in grant opportunities to have the two gas stations’ tanks assessed. The evaluation will determine the status of underground gas tanks and whether any hazardous substances have been released into the environment. The assessments will give the two gas stations brownfield status, meaning they will be entered into a statewide database. That will trigger correspondence with property owners who will be notified of compliance requirements.

When Stallard originally requested assistance from the National Trust Main Street Center, downtown Seville’s vacancy rate for ground floor retail in an eight-block commercial area had spiked to 33 percent. Helping drive those numbers was the shuttering of the large multi-storefront property which once served as the town’s general hardware store, the requisite business for a downtown in rural America.

Along with a hardware store, other staples of the traditional downtown are grocery stores and schools but those, too, closed down in Seville. In 2012 the village closed the 68,000-square-foot Seville-Guildford school. While there was fear the vacant school could be a white elephant because of its size, it was recently sold at auction for $42,000 to an investor who has bought several vacant schools in Ohio with the aim of redeveloping them.

“He likes the idea of revamping them, fixing them up and repurposing them,” said Stallard, who is working with the developer on a potential mixed-use project for the building.

“I don’t know if it was just a perfect storm that we got this grant to do this and then the synergy picked up downtown and the economy started coming back. But you know, I’ll take lucky any day of the week.”

Today, Stallard said, there are just two vacancies. The recommendation by the NTMSC that the existing cluster of antique and local craft stores be expanded is working and that the new businesses that have filled the downtown storefronts fit the bill.