Bethany council, BDC discuss housing

BETHANY – Bethany town officials are considering working with the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle to bring new housing to unused sites. Mayor Jay Eisenhauer and members of Bethany Council and the town's planning commission met with BDC Executive Director Pat Ford Tuesday to discuss the proposed partnership. A comprehensive plan adopted by council in 2008 and developed by the planning commission and West Virginia University Extension Service identifies supporting the development of new housing as a goal for the town. Town officials have said an influx of new staff at Bethany College in recent years has created a need for the housing. Ford said as a private, not-for-profit organization, the BDC may be able to obtain grants or low-interest loans to acquire property occupied by dilapidated structures, have them removed and pursue the development of new housing there. Ford said the BDC's primary goal is to bring new businesses and jobs to Brooke and Hancock counties. But he said by helping the town to establish new homes, it can support that goal of an environment where people want to live and work. He said the effort is not unlike the BDC's acquisition of the TS&T Pottery and Brooke Glass sites and Wheeling Corrugating Plant. At the three sites the BDC worked with others to secure grants for environmental rehabilitation that private developers were unlikely to fund. “We go where the private market can't support,” Ford said. Mayor Jay Eisenhauer said the BDC also has more options than the town. “The BDC is able to do some things we simply can't do as a government,” he said. Councilwoman Helen Moren asked what type of housing is being considered. Ford said pending available funding, three sites are being eyed for the development of six housing duplexes that would resemble standard houses but include accommodations for two families. The additional accommodations ultimately would bring more tax revenue for the town, he said. Following the discussion, council made plans to consider transferring property at 111 Main St. to the BDC for that purpose. Eisenhauer said the town recently purchased the property for $7,654 because its owner couldn't afford to repair a two-story house and two garages there that were in very poor condition. He said in this case, the move was more effective than having the buildings condemned, which would have involved court costs for the town. Council members and planning commission members asked several questions about how the BDC may go about developing housing and its impact on the community. Councilman Thom Furbee questioned whether there is a strong enough need and whether the new housing would hurt local property owners' efforts to sell or rent their property. Ford had noted loans and grants obtained by the BDC for the properties' development could make the property available for less cost. In response to Furbee, Ford said the BDC's goal is not to be long-term housing managers and the new structures could be sold to private entities later. He also said a marketing study should be done to determine the local market rate for housing, which also would help to ensure the BDC can recoup its costs for the construction. Eisenhauer said the replacement of dilapidated structures with new homes would improve the market value of older properties around them. Bill Hicks, the planning commission's chairman, agreed, saying, “It's pretty well known that a run-down house next door affects your property value. Even if you only tear it down, it's still better than before.” Councilman Patrick Sutherland noted a private partnership was suggested by the comprehensive plan as a way for council to support housing development. He noted the creation of a small park in space previously occupied by dilapidated structures also has been proposed. Attracting low-volume retail stores and establishing off-street parking also were identified as goals. Sutherland said town officials have “banker's boxes full of plans” and it's time for the town to pursue them. “You grow or you die. Bethany has been stagnant for decades and it's time that we grow,” he said. Eisenhauer said the comprehensive plan has been a good tool in pursuing improvements to the town. “It has gotten people thinking. It got us here tonight,” he said.