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Residents call for downtown fixes

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Before you can get to downtown Franklin to see newly restored storefronts and visit new shops, you have to pass by homes that haven’t been maintained or abandoned buildings that are falling apart.

Now city officials, local business owners and residents want to start seeing improvements outside the downtown area and get homes along the routes into downtown fixed up, too. A local organization created by the city and funded with tax dollars could take on that responsibility and could begin purchasing rundown homes and hire their own contractor to fix them up and resell.

The Franklin Development Corp. has spent nearly all of the original $5 million in tax dollars given to it by the city. This spring, the board has been asking community members and local officials what they think the city’s problems are and how the organization can help solve them.

Up to this point, the organization has offered low-interest loans to homeowners and business owners, as well as grants to businesses that wanted to repair their building facades. The organization has given low-interest loans to 22 homeowners, totaling about $544,000. But former Mayor Fred Paris, Scott Brown of Brown Remodeling and city community development specialist Rhoni Oliver suggested the organization might have to offer more, such as grants that don’t have to be paid back or the take on projects itself.

Most of the taxpayer money given to the group — or about $4.3 million — was spent paying for improvements to downtown businesses and other projects, such as helping Ivy Tech buy land for a future expansion. Of that $5 million the organization started with in 2008, less than $200,000 has not been promised to current projects. The organization will need to ask the city redevelopment commission for more money from the city’s tax-increment financing, or TIF, districts in order to fund more projects.

Board members want to create new goals and programs based on the needs they’ve heard from the community, and fixing up homes has been one of the top concerns that’s surfaced, board member Lisa Fears said. The Franklin Development Corp., as a nonprofit organization, is better suited to work on residential projects than the city’s redevelopment commission, which has more restrictions on what projects it can fund with tax dollars, Fears said.

The feedback the organization has gathered, such as in the recent public meetings, will be used by board members to set new goals. But due to the amount of people wanting to see more homes fixed up, it will likely become a new priority for the board, Fears said. Then in the future the board could compile a list of residential projects and ask the redevelopment commission to provide funding.

“We need to focus on our distressed residential properties in our gateways and downtown corridors,” Fears said.

A person who lives in their home but can’t fix broken shutters, chipping paint and broken shingles likely doesn’t make the fixes because they can’t afford to, which means they can’t pay back a loan either, Brown said. A landlord who owns a house that’s been turned into multi-unit apartments likely won’t invest $80,000 to fix up a building that is only worth $100,000 unless the city can help, he said. If the organization provided a 50 percent grant or even higher, that would help generate interest from property owners or investors who might be considering buying a property to renovate, he said.

“These people are not going to borrow the majority of the cost to restore it, because they’re not going to get that return on investment,” Brown said.

The organization could also focus on buying abandoned properties, paying a contractor to renovate them and then sell the homes for a profit, said Paris, who was mayor when the Franklin Development Corp. was founded. That kind of project was something that was originally proposed when the organization was formed, but no projects like that were done. Selling improved homes could also help the organization generate revenue, which would allow it to pay for operating costs and future projects without having to rely on city tax dollars, which is another future goal of the organization, Paris said.

If the organization was interested in buying and repairing homes, Oliver said she could think of at least 10 possible properties. Oliver runs the city’s unsafe building program, where the city can order a property owner to either repair or demolish a rundown building.

Those homes are often abandoned or have financial issues, such as mortgages, liens or overdue taxes, that make the homes difficult to sell, Oliver said. The Franklin Development Corp. could buy those properties in the county tax sale and then either immediately sell it or repair the house and then sell, which is something the city board of works or redevelopment commission can’t do.

For example, the Franklin Development Corp. purchased four homes south of downtown that were damaged in the 2008 flood. The city hadn’t been able to buy them because the owners either couldn’t be located or the properties had outstanding mortgages and other debts.

New residential improvement projects could start along corridors leading into the downtown including Jefferson and King streets and North and South Main streets. The organization could begin expanding out from the area around the courthouse to fix homes on nearby streets such as Madison, Jackson, Water and Monroe streets, Fears said. Franklin approved its new 10-year plan last year, which pinpointed residential areas west of downtown on Jefferson Street and in the older neighborhoods north of Jefferson Street where housing that needs improvement.

Buying those properties could help save a historic home, generate new taxes if a new owner buys it and also encourage other nearby property owners to keep up maintenance on their houses, Fears said.

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