Vacant parcels and abandoned properties are a big problem for many of Ohio’s cities, some that have been shrinking for decades as a result of sustained population loss. Blighted properties that litter the urban landscape can cost cities millions in lost property taxes, foreclosures and demolition costs, not to mention opportunity costs to local economies. A report by Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) in 2008 on eight shrinking cities in Ohio estimated annual costs of city services to these properties at 15 million dollars, and lost property tax revenues from demolitions and tax delinquencies at over 49 million dollars.
Lima, the Allen county seat, is an example of a city facing the challenge of hundreds of vacant and abandoned properties. Over the past two years, faculty and students from OSU’s Knowlton School, in collaboration with OSU Lima and the City of Lima Land Bank, have piloted a program, the Ohio Land Exchange (OH/LEX), to address the vacancy problem in Lima. They have surveyed and mapped hundreds of tax delinquent parcels, which, according to Lima’s Mayor Berger, has “provided Lima vacancy patterns and demotion needs, as well as detailed maps of locations, flood plains, and potential reuses” (link). The team also engaged over a dozen local non-profits who have been meeting regularly to explore beneficial ways to reuse the properties.
In the past year, Knowlton School expanded the partnership to include OSU Extension, holding a workshop in May 2017 to introduce the program to Extension Educators statewide. Extension is providing the boots on the ground needed to take the initiative from mapping and data collection to project implementation. Data has helped to inform stakeholders about property locational assets or liabilities, including soil conditions or proximity to bus stops, to determine potential forms of reuse and appropriate locations. One of these stakeholders is Activate Allen County, a non-profit organization formed in 2012, tasked with improving the health and well-being of Lima and Allen County residents. The organization conducted a food system assessment which found that 53% of Lima citizens reside in a food desert, the region has the second highest obesity rate in Ohio, and almost 11% of its residents suffer from diabetes. The proposed implementation project is the result of numerous meetings with local stakeholders to reach a consensus on land reuse priorities, including food system improvements.
Funding support has come from a 2017 Connect and Collaborate grant that supported increased and strengthened stakeholder engagement and formulation of a plan for Lima. Another grant, currently under review, would provide support for a phased food systems implementation strategy, to create a temporary “food and entrepreneurship lab” and to conduct a market analysis for a permanent food hub. The second phase, dependent on the outcome of the first phase, is the development of a permanent food hub. The food and entrepreneurship lab includes the design and build of a model urban garden and community space on vacant land near the city center. Concurrently, a market analysis will be conducted to identify the impact, needs and potential uses for a permanent food hub based on existing retail sales data, data gathered at the lab, and surveys of local residents.
As a pilot location, Lima will demonstrate the costs and benefits of the OH/LEX program and its potential value for other cities in Ohio. Do you see a need in your city?
Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.