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Talking to Property Owners

Casey Woods by Casey Woods, Executive Director | July 7, 2016
This is the second in a series of e-news articles inspired by sessions at the National Main Street conference in Milwaukee.  This particular session was attended by a volunteer, and it showcases some of the universal issues present in Main Street communities throughout the nation.  This is not a commentary on any local property (we don’t have sprawling parks in downtown Emporia, for example), but it does showcase some of the uniform strategies and identification tactics used to move community development forward.
Regardless of city size, we’ve all seen dilapidation or vacancy.  Housing, commercial properties, vacant lots- these are the eyesores that hold a community back.  Individual property owners may have the best intentions when purchasing a property, but sometimes lack the experience, resources or confidence in the local economy to initiate a rehabilitation.  Other property owners may have an emotional attachment to property that precludes them from selling it, regardless of the state.  Some owners of property are speculators that want to hold a property until it becomes valuable enough to generate significant profit, and then you have the “you can’t tell me what to do” crowd that hold onto property for reasons that we just can’t quite understand.
Engaging property owners can be challenging.  Nobody wants to hear that their property may be causing issues for a community.  Most property owners of problem areas like to view their properties in a sort of community vacuum, but we know that property values and business success around dilapidated or chronically vacant properties decline over time.  So, how does one proceed with property owner discussions?
First, you have to prioritize the status of buildings and know your building owners.  For buildings and properties, three basic categories exist: Dynamic Status, Low Status and High Status.
Dynamic Status properties have high perceived value and high levels of accessibility.  A park on a busy corner or the new mixed use building downtown are examples of dynamic status buildings.  Green spaces can be built out and areas can convert their egress accessibility into full utilization for mixed use spaces, but dynamic properties are generally the easiest to work with (or “program”).
Low Status properties require small aesthetic changes that can make a big difference.  Removing boards from windows, repainting, changing lighting, basic cleaning and other “elbow grease” types of alterations can make a big difference.  It’s important to build relationships with Low Status properties to make continual improvements.  Providing technical assistance that explains the basis for the change, or can show potential before and after photos is important to initiating change.  Low Status programs emphasize the adaptive reuse of buildings we already have, as opposed to “demo and replace”.
High Status properties are the problem children of Main Street program.  They can represent (sometimes simultaneously) the greatest opportunities and greatest threats to an area.  Brownfield sights, large dilapidated buildings, inappropriate infill and chronic vacancies generate “missing teeth” that have a profoundly negative impact on the community.  With the correct type of redevelopment, high status properties can act as catalysts for community revival.
Think of the impact the revitalization of the Granada Theatre has had on downtown Emporia.  Other communities have sought higher disposable incomes to encourage more local shopping, dining and entertainment- only to build low income housing developments that don’t meet the vision of an area.
Each one of the property types listed above requires different planning and implementation techniques to achieve a positive resolution. Sometimes the property type isn’t as important as the type of property owner you are dealing with.  There are a lot of different types of people in this world, but some of the more common types of property owners include:
Status Seekers-  These individuals only respond to other individuals that they deem as “high value”.  Some of these people may not respond well to a Main Street director, but they would respond more favorably to an elected official.  Status seekers sometimes respond to individual pitch meetings, or group meetings with a narrow focus that appeals to them.
Non-Joiners- These folks hate random meetings, but will respond to peer group invitations.  The best way to deal with non-joiners is to coordinate efforts with a social group they are already a part of.
Non-government lovers (that’s the nicest term we could come up with…).  These folks hate anything that they think infringes upon their “rights”, but they often paradoxically expect a lot from governmental entities.  These folks need to exist in an environment where significant rewards exist for “doing the right thing”.   Carrots that fulfill design, quality and occupancy expectations can help convert the non-government-lover into an individual that can be dealt with.
The “others”- There are some people that you simply cannot work with.  They do not want to improve their property, even when they understand that the property state hurts the community.  To these individuals, carrots mean very little.  Carefully crafted ordinances can remove incentives for their behavior, and communities need to create systems like “land banks” to ensure the responsible transition of properties in a planned development format.
Hand-on craftsman- These folks have no shortage of work ethic, but they are typically a one or two person team.  Because they have a tendency to want to “do it themselves”, redevelopment isexceptionally slow, and can cause some code/quality issues.  These folks need tours of completed and “in progress” developments, and workshops designed to improve skill sets.  Slow introductions to better development (and financing) options can aid in the craftsman’s longevity and profitability as a property owner.
Risk Takers- These folks see themselves on the “ground floor” of an ascending market.  Because they view properties in dollars and cents, they need help with facade improvement ideas, general development, design assistance, color consulting and finding tenants.  Risk takers can become serial developers if they make money, so it is important to ensure that they do things right while maintaining profitability.
Accurate property and property owner assessments can give a community an advantage as they seek continual improvement.  Lack of improvement typically leads to accelerated dilapidation, and communities can trend downward pretty quickly.  The inverse of that scenario is that proper “catalyst” developments can create consistent momentum.  If that momentum for appropriate development is consistently fed, great things can happen in even the smallest of communities.
In a future edition of the e-news, we will discuss dynamic programming for commercial and residential spaces.  Once owners are willing to make changes, we need strategies to give them the right types of tenants that activate blocks.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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