Go Southwest Young Man

August 29, 2005
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BENTON HARBOR — Nothing peps up a struggling economy like a good old-fashioned land rush. With that in mind, Berrien County officials are gearing up to dispense with over 100 parcels of surplus real estate, surrendered for failure to pay taxes.

This might not sound too impressive, since municipal governments sell off excess properties all the time. But in this case, the stakes are different.

At the Sept. 20 event, a bidder with a crisp, new $100 bill could theoretically walk away with the title to an apartment building, 13 acres of commercial property on U.S. 12, a two-acre lot on the St. Joseph river or a Benton Township church. That’s because the bidding on all the properties starts at $100 and buyers are not obligated to pay delinquent taxes or demolish condemned structures — those costs are included in the sale price.

“We realize on demolitions we’re losing money. We just hope we have enough — for lack of a better word — ‘good’ properties to help cover the costs,” said Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski.

“And on the flipside, we’re not getting any taxes off them now. And even if a guy buys (a parcel) for a hundred bucks, that’s a hundred bucks we wouldn’t have otherwise. And if it’s worth $5,000 and the guy’s paying $300 in taxes, that’s $300 more than we ever got out of it before.”

Although he admits that some of the properties may sell for no more than the opening bid, he believes there may be some that fetch several thousand dollars, especially those in Benton Harbor’s Enterprise Zone (a forerunner to today’s Renaissance Zone designation).

A brick storefront on Pipestone Road in Benton Harbor is among the more desirable parcels. It has caught the eye of speculators hoping to restore the aging structure.

Witkowski decided to stay the wrecking ball, but he is not simply going to take the buyer’s word that the property will be redeveloped. His office is requiring a $50,000 certificate of deposit to accompany the winning bid. The county will then give the purchaser 18 months to renovate the property to move-in condition. At that time, Witkowski said, he will supply the owner with a title, a quit-claim deed and a refund of the $50,000 deposit.

“What we don’t want is someone to say they’re going to save it, buy it — and then just sit on it,” he said.

Witkowski, who took office in January after serving on the county’s board of commissioners, has two goals for the land sale: one immediate and one long-term.

“Our ultimate hope is that they’re redeveloped to be productive. The other purpose really is to clear up blight,” he said.

“A vacant piece of land, in my opinion, has more potential than with some of these facilities sitting on it, because what’s on (the abandoned parcels) is beyond repair. The people around them are not conducive to a good neighborhood. There’s activities going on around them that people don’t like. So I think it serves a couple purposes.”

The cleanup is long overdue, said Witkowski. Some of the parcels have unpaid taxes dating back to 1975.

He said that some of the boarded-up storefronts have not housed functioning businesses as long as he can remember.

“You know, I can honestly say, my wife and I have been married 15 years and we used to live over here. I can’t remember anything other than yard-sale type businesses,” he said while touring through what was likely a bustling commercial area 50 years ago.

“I always tell people that Benton Harbor’s situation didn’t happen in a two-week period. But it did happen in a short period. Ten years, maybe? And it will take at least that long to turn around,” he said.

That turn-around is already in its infancy. Several downtown commercial buildings are in the throes of renovation. A new brewpub is coming to town. Witkowski pointed out a dramatic, early-20th century limestone structure — probably around 20,000 square feet on two stories — that had recently been purchased for $75,000. He said that out-of-town developers are beginning to realize that Benton Harbor, despite its sluggish economy and poor reputation, is a very promising investment opportunity.

At the same time, it is still a rough town. At one point during the tour, Witkowski declined to step out of the vehicle for a photo opportunity.

“Oh, I’m not getting out here,” he said, idling in the parking lot of a ramshackle liquor store where people lolled about, drinking from 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor wrapped in brown paper bags. Across the street stood a condemned apartment building, nearly buckling under its own weight. It is scheduled for demolition after it gets a new owner at the Sept. 20 sale. “This is the worst part of town.”

But even amid the most run-down sections of the city, there are signs of renewal. Just minutes from this “particularly troubled corner” is a neighborhood of new, affordable homes built earlier this year in a Jimmy Carter Work Project through Habitat For Humanity.

This is the type of investment Witkowski would like to see more of. He said the county and its local municipalities are considering the launch of a public-private venture known as a “land bank.” The program would allow the operating entity to obtain both blighted and desirable properties to be used for economic development activities, or simply to be sold off to raise funds.

He said that many properties currently owned by the county and its municipalities could be donated to the land bank. For example, the city of Benton Harbor owns 650 pieces of tax-reverted property. That’s 15 percent of the city’s area.

Witkowski said that the area’s large companies, such as Whirlpool, have supported the downtown revitalization efforts to a great extent. With corporate support and intergovernmental cooperation, he hopes that Berrien County can turn around some of its more dismal areas. But that, of course, requires private investment.

“I just hope that what I can do through the Treasurer’s office can add to that,” he said.

The sale runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Playland Hall in Benton Harbor. Detailed property descriptions will be available by Sept. 1 at www.berriencounty.org.    

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