Neighborhood taps cash languishing in account

July 20, 2009

In the heart of downtown, the Central Canal is a tourist attraction and city centerpiece, surrounded by walking paths, bike rentals, museums and restaurants. Just a mile to the northwest, however, the view isn’t so welcoming: murky water, overgrown vegetation and abandoned industrial buildings.

But that is about to change, thanks to a fund that for 12 years has been collecting tax revenue without spending a dime.

City officials and neighborhood leaders have put together a preliminary plan to revitalize the United North West Area—from West 38th Street to Fall Creek Parkway and Riverside Drive to Interstate 65—using $3.8 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF, proceeds that have been sitting in a bank account.

The plan, presented at a June public meeting in the district, highlights two key “opportunity areas”: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and the Central Canal.

Michael Richardson, co-founder of the MLK Business Revitalization Association, said these areas create the best opportunity for spurring business and community development.

The first phase of the MLK Street improvements aims to develop the street commercially and aesthetically with gateways, rights-of-way improvements and sidewalk revamping. The project is expected to use $1.7 million of the long-sitting TIF fund.

“The Martin Luther King Jr. Street plan makes it a destination rather than a pass-through point,” Richardson said. “People need a reason to stop.”

The first phase of the Central Canal project includes extending the towpath that now ends at Riverside Park down to 16th Street. The cost of adding the 6-foot-wide stone path, buying land for residential development, and cleaning up the canal and a nearby park, is estimated at $187,000.

A team led by Wendy Cooper of the Department of Metropolitan Development conducted two public meetings and six neighborhood focus groups to research possible improvements.

Residents identified the Central Canal area for improvement because of the abandoned industrial businesses that deter residential development.

“It’s the only section along the canal that isn’t developed—everything north and south of it is developed,” said Richardson, who also is executive director of the Flanner House, which provides education and other services to residents of the area.

The United North West Area’s preliminary plan also calls for spending $1.4 million on other economic development projects. In addition, the plan provides $300,000 for infrastructure improvements and leaves $200,000 in cash reserves.

The TIF district was established in 1997 by then-Mayor Bart Peterson and has been collecting, but not using, its funds since. The TIF is unusual because it was developed without a plan for the money it generated, Cooper said.

TIF districts capture additional property tax revenue by development. River’s Edge, a 167-unit housing development built around the same time the TIF formed, has generated most of the $400,000 to $650,000 flowing into the fund annually.

Community leaders and government officials hope using those reserves to improve the neighborhood will spur additional development, ultimately generating more money for the TIF.

“The idea is to infuse development so that increment goes up,” Cooper said.

Richardson said he and other stakeholders in the area also encourage business owners to improve their local businesses by applying for assistance through the city’s Façade Grant Program, which matches half of spending up to $10,000 on storefront maintenance.

“We aren’t trying to run people out of the space,” he said. “We just want appropriate spaces for the community. It doesn’t have to be elaborate.”

Sam Thompson recently took advantage of façade grants to remodel a former store into Sam’s Down Home Cookin’. He said the soul food restaurant has been thriving since it opened six weeks ago.

Thompson, who grew up in the area, said it’s always been close to his heart but needs attention.

“I want the name Martin Luther King Jr. to represent something decent,” Thompson said. “I’ve been to other cities where the name was used, and I didn’t like the name associated with rundown areas.”•


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