Downtown businesses discuss vacant buildings, parking

While many improvements can be seen in downtown Fort Scott such as in the completion of the Lowell Milken Center and work being done at the old Western Insurance building, much remains to be done as vacant buildings deteriorate.

4-6 Buildings 2

During the quarterly downtown business meet and greet event held at Papa Don’s Tuesday morning, City Manager Dave Martin and others in attendance discussed this and other downtown needs that need to be addressed in order to improve the downtown atmosphere.

“Quite frankly, folks, I don’t know what we’re going to do with some of these old buildings downtown that people just went off and left,” Martin said, saying they have fined and even issued arrest warrants for not keeping those vacant buildings up to code, but are not able to take further action against them.

During the Fort Scott City Commission meeting later that evening, Martin said a letter is sent to those whose buildings are out of compliance with city codes, giving them 10 days to comply. If they do not comply, they are given a ticket which demands they come to court. If they do not appear at court, they are invited a second time and are then issued a bench warrant if they again fail appear.

Martin said their goal is not to force owners to pay fines or be placed under arrest, but to get them to comply with the codes. Some codes that are not complied with downtown concern unsafe structures or failure to pick up trash or other debris.

“The buildings in our Downtown Historic District are an anchor to our community and compliment surrounding attractions including the Fort Scott National Historic Site and the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes,” Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lindsay Madison said, saying Fort Scott has a number of great businesses and owners located downtown, but need to attract more.

Martin said some structures such as the former Chop House building are in bad shape, and if the owners do not step in to prevent deterioration, then the city may have to take them down since the city cannot sue the owners to follow ordinances. Martin said certain buildings are at critical points.

Martin emphasized that a lot of great things are currently being done downtown, but that they still need to find others willing to invest in the older downtown buildings who understand what is required to take care of such structures. Madison said there are grants available to those who may be interested in rehabilitating buildings, which she says are well-suited for office spaces, service-based businesses and art venues for example.

Madison said it would be a shame to have to take down any downtown buildings, many of which are historic buildings. She encouraged other business owners or local volunteers to assist owners of vacant buildings who no longer live nearby by helping keep those structures clean by sweeping their entrances, removing weeds in the sidewalk and clearing windows of old fliers.

“Don’t ever think we’re not trying our best to get things done,” Martin said, saying things are being accomplished downtown from behind the scenes. “We have a lot of really good things going on.”

Director of Economic Development Heather Smith gave an update on recent construction, saying work continues at the Western Insurance building to turn it into an apartment building. Already, Smith said they have nearly completed the roof and are working on framework on the fourth and fifth floors.

“Things are going very well there,” Martin said, while Smith explained that it is still on schedule to be complete in the late fall.

Another issue discussed was downtown parking, with business owners expressing frustration at losing customers because they circle the block and fail to find a place to park.

Those owners requested that employees be asked to park in separate lots instead of in front of their or neighboring businesses. Tenants of upstairs apartments also occasionally leave their vehicle parked in front of businesses much of the day.

Smith also proposed encouraging younger shoppers and visitors to consider parking further away from businesses and walking the short blocks, allowing older or disabled visitors to park nearer their destination.

Madison said she will begin working with the city to create a sign to be placed at parking lots such as at Wall and Scott streets, encouraging shoppers to use those areas.

Though it is a good problem to have, Martin said it is also one that needs to be corrected.

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