Petrolia looks to clean up vacant stores downtown

People walk past one of the vacant buildings in Petrolia in this 2016 file photo. The town is has passed a plan to make landowners maintain a minimum standard for their building.

Petrolia is looking at ways of spurring landlords to fix up vacant buildings in the downtown.

It is part of a series of programs being suggested to increase business.

The town’s Director of Marketing, Laurissa Ellsworth, recently attended a conference where officials from San Antonio, Texas relayed how they took a tough stand to have the downtown’s vacant buildings cleaned up.

She thinks a similar program could work in downtown Petrolia where a number of vacant buildings are in disrepair, She says they “hinder economic development” and “create an eyesore” as well as “decrease property value” to the businesses around them.

Ellsworth is suggesting the town adopt which would force building owners to maintain minimum maintenance standards and actually be trying to rent the building.

Signs from former businesses would have to be removed five days after the business closes. Then after 30 days, the town would identify the building as vacant and the owner would have to register with the town for a fee of $750. They’d be required to make sure the building was in good repair including making sure painted surfaces were not peeling and structure was sound.

If they didn’t, Ellsworth says they would be fined, up to $500 per violation. “There would be exceptions for people actively trying to sell the building or if there was a catastrophe, if someone was not legally competent or if they are in the middle of renovations.

Ellsworth says there is one aim to the program; “We want to encourage the use of the buildings or the sale of it.”

She’s suggesting the rules would take effect 2017.

Ellsworth is also suggesting the town give businesses owners a hand up. Operation Facelift is a façade grant program where business owners could apply for grants to upgrade buildings they’re using. “It’s pretty straight forward,” she says adding people would have to submit a plan for review and approval. “Bring us your project and let’s see if we can help.”

Ellsworth is also suggesting a program to “help small business owners get out of their basement and into a store downtown.” With the Open Program, building owners would make vacant space available to small businesses for a short term – about a month – to set up “pop-up” stores. Ellsworth says the building would be ready to rent and the temporary tenants would not make major changes to the building; they’d simply open their doors for a minimum of 14 days straight and see what it was like to have a storefront.

Ellsworth says the Open Program would not only encourage small business owners to move downtown, it would “drive a lot of interest in the downtown” for shoppers. “When people are here at the VPP, for example, they’ll go to their regular places…..but this will be something different and it is going to draw their interest.”

Aside from the pop-up stores and façade grants, Ellsworth is suggesting the town offer micro grants of $500, $750, and $1,000 to new start ups for permanent repairs to the downtown space their renting. “We’d just be giving them a leg up to get started. It’s saying, ‘We support you, we’re so glad you are here, and we want to provide some money to help you get started.”

Ellsworth says all the funds for the new programs should be generated by the fines levied to keep the buildings at minimum standards.

And she says that new Vacant and Underutilized Buildings Policy is key to starting the improvement in the downtown.

Mayor John McCharles likes the ideas and expects policies on dealing with vacant buildings could come to council as early as this year.