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Keokuk Boosts Funding for Demolition Budget

Jason Parrott
Keokuk tore down the buildings at 626-628 Main and cleaned up the charred remains of a former redemption center.

The city of Keokuk plans to remain proactive in addressing dilapidated buildings and nuisance properties. The most recent example: a pair of buildings that once stood at the corner of South 7th and Main Streets.

The city acquired the buildings (626-628 Main) from an out-of-town owner via court order in January. As part of the agreement, the owner has to pay the city $10,000 over five months.

“You are getting at least some money,” said Keokuk City Administrator Aaron Burnett about the agreement. “We are also taking ownership of the land, which I think is important to make sure we can control the future development in that area. [We can] make sure it can be reused rather than just sitting vacant.”

Burnett said the city’s goal was to delay the demolition of the buildings. But he said unfortunately their condition did not allow that to happen.

“We were looking at the structures and hoping to be able to address all the blight in that block in one chunk,” said Burnett. “Unfortunately, we did see deterioration. Nothing dramatic, but we started to see bricks falling onto the sidewalk, creating a hazard for the public. We were concerned that there might be a complete failure on that wall so we took care of what we could at that point.”

Burnett said the cost to tear down the two buildings should end up around $100,000, though that number is contingent on some final expenses. It also includes the removal of debris from 624 Main Street.

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
The city also removed the debris that remained for nearly two years following the May 2015 fire that destroyed a bottle/can redemption center.

That property, a former can/bottle redemption center, was destroyed by fire in May 2015. The city has taken the owner to court to address that property and several others, but negotiations are still underway.

The properties in the 600 block of Main Street are just a few of the properties that have found their way onto the city administration's radar. The city said in early February that it had identified 71 properties to address in the previous nine months.

Of them, more than 30 have been demolished while a couple dozen more are moving through the court system or the owner is deciding whether to demolish or rehabilitate. Two dozen more will soon receive notices from the city.

This has been a top priority for Burnett since he was hired.

“When we talk about economic development, we talk about increasing jobs and housing and improving the community,” said Burnett. “That really has to come from investment. I don’t know how [the city] would ask individuals and organizations to invest in the community if we are not investing in ourselves.

“We’re not taking care of our own issues and so we, as a city, need to do everything we can to improve our neighborhoods and attract that investment. That way, when we are asking an engineer to move to town and we’re asking a company to move their operations here or a retailer to set up shop, they are more likely to make that investment. So yes, it has been a focus because I think that’s the first step towards increased economic development in the community.”

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
The city tore down a former business known to many as The Palace earlier this year.

Burnett said Keokuk is making an investment in improving the city’s appearance, to the tune of a demolition budget of $500,000 in the spending plan that takes effect July 1, 2017. That’s more than three times as much as the current budget.

Burnett said an improvement in appearance will also lead to more people visiting the city.

“When we talk about the tourism dollars that exist within the community and how we get them through the dam, our proximity to Nauvoo, and through the National Cemetery, all these things are great assets. But we have to improve the brand in general to increase those tourism dollars, to get more heads in beds, more overnights or more restaurant visits,” said Burnett. “All of those things also help the city and so I think part of that is cleaning up that ‘Welcome’ when you come to town and you see dilapidated buildings on Main Street. So we're slowly going through that.”

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
City Administrator Aaron Burnett says it could be very expensive to tear down the former church if the responsibility falls on the city.

Burnett said the additional money in the upcoming budget also accounts for the possible demolition of the former Unitarian Church along 4th Street. A judge has deemed the building dangerous and ordered a plan be developed to restore it or to tear it down.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.