The president of Bluffton NOW!, the downtown revitalization organization, came to the first Bluffton Common Council meeting of the year Tuesday night to report and to ask.
Michael Lautzenheiser Jr. reported on the group’s actions during 2017 and asked council members to fund the Community Reinvestment Program to the greatest extent possible.
CRP is funded by money provided to Bluffton NOW! (New, Old, Wonderful) and the organization uses the money as incentive for downtown businesses to improve.
The four council members present — John Whicker, Carl Perry, Jim Phillabaum, and Melanie Durr — all expressed some degree of support for the program, but Durr had questions about where some of the money went.
Durr particularly asked pointed questions about why Bluffton NOW!’s review committee approved money for improvements to a parking lot at Bluffton Regional Medical Center and for lighting improvements at the Wells County Public Library. BRMC is part of the Lutheran Health Network, a large entity, and the library is a government agency. Both would have alternate sources of funding. BRMC received $24,935.50 — the largest single payout in 2017 — toward a parking lot and the library received $7,680.
Lautzenheiser, however, said the CRP review panel does not look at the requests that way. It’s been pretty much a first-come, first-served operation — although, since the city is providing the money for the program, its wishes could be prioritized.
In fact, Lautzenheiser agreed that a change will be made in how the money is granted. The enabling resolution that established the CRP said the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety was to review how the money is used. Phillabaum and Durr, who are two of the three members of the Board of Works, said that the money has already been spent before the claim for funds comes before them. That will change, Lautzenheiser said.
“You’re going to see the project before anything is done,” he said.
Lautzenheiser also presented a four-page financial review he titled, “The Value of Our Downtown.” He said the downtown commercial properties paid $351,894 in property taxes in 2016, down from $412,524 in 2007. They were valued at $18.7 million in 2016, down from just under $20 million in 2007. Not only that, he said, but many people work downtown — citing BRMC, city and county government, banks, and the library.
Those are the reasons, he said, that the CRP’s mission to improve downtown should be supported.
Leon Gaiser, owner of Parlor City Cabinetry, also addressed the council and thanked it for its support of the CRP. He used support from the city to remodel the exterior of the building at 1128 N. Main St.; the southern wall of the building had not been an exterior wall until June 26, 2013, when a fire destroyed the structure to the south of Gaiser’s building. Gaiser has had the wall repaired and covered in siding.
“I think you’re getting good things for your money,” Gaiser said, speaking for himself and the other CRP recipients.
Gaiser received $20,922.87 from CRP to use on the wall.
He also decried what he said was “a lot of negativity about the downtown.” Downtowns in Decatur, Huntington, and Roanoke have been renewed, “and there’s no reason Bluffton can’t do that.”
CRP got off to a slow start, Lautzenheiser said, but now has more in front of it than Bluffton NOW! can handle.
“We have too many projects and can only fund half of them,” he said. “Every dollar you can put toward this will be utilized.”