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Partnering with communities to clean up blight

Demolition of the old Clover Valley School in Duluth Township. (Photo submitted)

As you may have already heard, the former Clover Valley School was demolished earlier this month. The site had long been a trouble spot for neighbors, law enforcement and Duluth Township leaders. For the last 40 years it stood largely empty, its condition steadily deteriorating due to neglect, vandalism and even a fire. Of the walls that were still standing, just about every inch was covered with graffiti. Ownership of the building had changed several times over the years as various private parties tried and failed to redevelop the building and 25-acre site.

Last year the building was tax-forfeited, making it the responsibility of St. Louis County. While it's never the county's preference to take ownership of a property due to someone failing to pay property taxes, in situations such as this with the dilapidated former school, it creates an opportunity for local leaders and the county to partner in a way to clean up blight and pursue new economic development to help communities thrive.

It's never our first choice to tear down a building. However in this case, the building had deteriorated so badly that it was the only logical option. State statute gives the county authority to demolish buildings on tax-forfeited property if they pose a danger due to dilapidated condition or if demolition would make it easier to sell the property. The former school is one of 34 structures approved for demolition by the County Board last month.

The County Board has made it a priority in recent years to clean up blighted, tax-forfeited properties — both residential and commercial — as a way to improve neighborhoods and encourage economic development. Commissioners approved spending more than $800,000 to review, remove and rehabilitate tax-forfeited properties countywide this year. That's in addition to the $450,000 spent each of the previous two years.

It's a worthwhile investment. When a neglected building sits empty it not only looks bad, it can attract additional problems ranging from small critters to drug dealers. Working in partnership with the City of Duluth, other local governments and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), we have seen real success. We are able to clean up problem properties to preserve quality of life in neighborhoods, plus go a step further to address community development needs and expand the tax base.

When the county takes possession of a property as the result of tax forfeiture proceedings, we first review the property to determine the best course of action. If a property is salvageable, it is put up for sale "as is" via public auction. But often, these properties have been so badly neglected they are beyond rehabilitation. They may contain hazardous materials and have been identified as a neighborhood and public safety concern. In that case, remediation is needed, followed by demolition, and ultimately, redevelopment.

We try to avoid "broken teeth," empty, unused lots in the midst of an otherwise healthy neighborhood. With the goal of returning properties to the tax rolls, redevelopment options include selling a property to adjacent land owners when permitted, selling the property at public auction or working with development authorities to attract a specific redevelopment use.

This is currently happening with two key properties in Duluth: the Pastoret Terrace (Kozy Bar) and a former church at 5907 Grand Ave. Both buildings had been in poor condition long before they went tax-forfeited. In both instances, the County Board gave approval for the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) to acquire the properties and pursue new development options that would better serve the surrounding neighborhood.

The challenge is always to find funding for this work. Thankfully, the County Board is supportive and recognizes the importance of correcting blighted conditions and stabilizing neighborhoods.

Barbara Hayden is the St. Louis County director of Planning and Economic Development. Mark Weber is the St. Louis County director of Land and Minerals.