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A cure for empty buildings?

November 30, 2006

One of the problems that has plagued downtown Hagerstown over the years has been investors who purchased commercial or multi-unit residential rental property.

The problem was that these investors didn't make use of the property they purchased within a matter of months. Sometimes, in fact, it was years before the property changed hands again and was finally put back into productive use.

This was a problem for two reasons. The first was that it detracted from downtown's image. The second was that vacant buildings that were producing little or no income didn't yield much tax revenue, either.

Various strategies have been tried to improve such properties. At one point, the city condemned some structures and purchased them at fair market value. At other times it has offered various incentives, tax credits and the like, to encourage productive re-use.

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Now, the City Council has voted to introduce ordinances to license and inspect vacant buildings. The annual fees do not sound onerous - $100 for residential licenses and $1,000 at most for commercial properties.

But for an owner, the inspection of a building that has long been vacant might yield fix-up orders that would cost him or her a great deal.

We understand that real estate prices are down and that anything that would have the effect of forcing owners out at the low end of the market could create a hardship. Now is the time for those owners to suggest alternatives to get those structures back into productive use.

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