City Administrator Aaron Burnett said when he first arrived in Keokuk, he noticed the number of vacant commercial buildings along the Main Street Corridor. He said that’s why finding a new use for those sites -- be it through renovation or demolition -- is a priority for the city and its elected leaders.
Burnett said the challenge for Keokuk is reacting to the change in retail patterns that has more businesses moving towards Walmart on the city’s northwest side. He said the abandoned buildings are a result of that change.
“The city is trying to address those, get them renovated,” said Burnett. “If they are beyond the point of no return, then to get them demolished to a green space so we can advertise those for future development.”
The city is in the process of acquiring one such vacant building: the former Pizza Plus restaurant in the 2500 block of Main Street. The building has sat empty for more than five years, with the parking lot serving as home-base for a hot dog cart in recent summers.
The city will pay $1 to the county, which acquired the building through a property tax auction. Burnett said this will give the city access to the building to gauge its condition.
“It might be a demolition and it might be where the structure can be salvaged and somebody will come in and develop it with a good plan and financing behind it that the city can get behind,” said Burnett.
“Obviously, making sure that we have a development agreement in place that says you have to do these things, otherwise, the city has no intent to give that property over.
"That’s the important thing, making sure that when you give these properties or you get someone involved, that they have the ability to do what they say they are going to do and that you hold their feet to the fire to make sure they do them. Otherwise, you can end up in situations where you have someone who is just trying to profit off a cheap property and soak up a few dollars out of it.”
Some of the other properties the city is trying to address include the former redemption center in the 600 block of Main Street and a former nightclub just one block off of Main.
Burnett said finding a new use for these vacant properties means the collection of more property taxes, improved neighborhood appearance and the development of an asset for the community. He said the challenge is doing it in a timely manner, given the fact that most vacant buildings end up in court.
“Often, we get stuck in a legal situation that can take a long time and that does not make anybody happy,” said Burnett. “The key is to stay on top of these properties, you know, follow through, make sure you address them even if you have an uncooperative landlord [or] owner, to make sure they are doing what is best for the community.
Burnett said the city is setting aside more money now for demolitions, even though that’s the last option for the city.
He hopes the construction of the new senior housing complex in the 900 block of Main Street will lead to future development of nearby downtown properties, reducing the need for the city to step in.
“I think that will bring more people, more customers, and renovate that block, give it a nice fresh look,” said Burnett. “I think people will be very happy when it is completed, what the look of the building will be.
“We are trying to work with all sorts of people on all sorts of projects. Some of them are false starts, but as long as you keep working on it, I think you will continue to see rejuvenation in the downtown district.”