City Looking To Make Downtown Living Appealing

A day after Wheeling City Council voted to allow residential use on the first floor of downtown buildings, the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission discussed ways to make things easier for those who want to convert buildings to living space.

Commissioners met Thursday and discussed establishing a program to offer financial assistance to developers who would otherwise be discouraged from investing in downtown property because the initial gap between rent income and mortgage and renovation costs is too great to turn a profit.

“The idea is we’re trying to look at ways where there are alternatives for (vacant) historic buildings in downtown Wheeling other than demolition,” commission Chairman C.J. Kaiser said.

Commissioners had floated an idea to ask City Council to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant money for the purpose but may look to other means to achieve their goal after receiving more information from Economic and Community Development Director Nancy Prager.

One drawback to using CDBG money, Prager said, is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would require that at least 51 percent of the housing units in any building that is part of such a program be for low- to moderate-income tenants, meaning landlords would be limited in what they could charge for rent. For example, a two-bedroom apartment could cost no more than $615 per month to qualify.

The availability of CDBG funds could be another issue. In the 18 years she’s worked for the city, Prager has seen the city’s entitlement decline from more than $2 million to about $1.1 million, with about $500,000 of that decline taking place in the last three years alone.

“We really don’t know what to expect. … I don’t see that trend changing dramatically,” she said, noting the city has not yet learned how much it will receive for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Prager said there would have to be an application process for the funds, and city officials could not simply deal with whomever they choose without opening the opportunity to other interested parties. She noted the ideal situation would be banks consenting to longer terms and lower interest rates on loans for buildings with a prior commercial use.

Commissioner and Councilman David Miller said he’s spoken with someone in the banking industry who indicated a willingness to consider that, but he cautioned it was only a casual conversation.

“It comes down to making money for them, as well,” said Miller.

After hearing the information Prager presented, commissioners agreed it’s likely back to the drawing board to come up with a funding mechanism for their proposal.

“We’ll keep looking at ways to do this,” Kaiser said.