Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher says the city of Albany should take steps to require businesses to maintain their properties. (Albany Herald file photo)
ALBANY — When businesswoman B.J. Fletcher campaigned for the Ward III Albany City Commission seat, she vowed to do what was best for her constituents, no matter whose feathers she might ruffle.
Fletcher ruffled a few feathers at the commission’s work session last week when she asked her colleagues to work with her to require downtown property owners to bring their dilapidated properties up to code or face city-imposed fines. But the first-year commissioner also garnered a lot of praise.
“After my comments appeared in the paper, I had no less than 50 people call and thank me for my suggestion,” Fletcher said Friday. “I had one person, a person who owns a lot of those dilapidated properties, tell me he thinks it’s a bad idea.”
While Fletcher’s proposal generated only a brief discussion — and declarations of support from some of her fellow commission members — during the city meeting, it’s opened the door to a heated discussion in the business community. But the restaurant owner says she’s not quite sure why her suggestion is being looked at as something new.
“I started talking about this two years ago,” Fletcher said. “And I talked about it during my campaign. This is something we need to do. I saw it work in Valdosta, and they now have a thriving downtown. If I remember correctly, our downtown manager (Aaron Blair) said (during a recent State of Downtown address) said there are around 28 buildings in our downtown business district that are unfit to use. To me, that’s a story in itself.
“One of the things that’s come up since my comments were reported is that this is not just a downtown issue. It’s something that needs to be looked at with every building in the city. You’ve got buildings with no floors, no electricity, no plumbing and roofs that would not pass (Senior Planning Manager) Tracy Hester’s inspection. They’re just hulls. How are these places even assigned addresses?”
City Manager James Taylor, who is expected to remain in that position no longer than the remainder of the year and whose position is now being listed on the city’s website, said Friday evening he’s not sure if the city can “tax” the owners of dilapidated buildings for not bringing those structures up to code.
“To my knowledge, you can’t do that,” Taylor said. “There are rigid restrictions on what you can do as far as taxing. Now fees, yes, that’s a different story.
“Commissioner Fletcher mentioned something similar being done in Valdosta, so if they did it, it must be doable. We’re definitely looking into it. I’m having (City Attorney) Nathan (Davis) follow up.”
Fletcher said requiring improvements of city property owners is similar to the standards to which landlords are held and requirements they must meet before new tenants are allowed to move into their rental property.
“Why don’t these standards apply to every commercial building as well?” she said. “We have entrepreneurs who have retired at a relatively young age with a nest egg and a dream. If they have a $50,000 nest egg and want to use half of that toward their dream, they can’t do it in a place where they have to — in addition to paying a sometimes outrageous rent — put in new flooring, repair the roof, install plumbing and electricity. All of a sudden, they find they’re tapped out before they’ve even purchased the products they intend to sell.”
Fletcher mentioned the downtown Cafe 230 and Gabe’s buildings as examples.
“(The new entrepreneurs) came in and did things the right way, made needed repairs to the buildings,” she said. “But soon they found they’d invested a lot of money, and in the case of Gabe’s, to improve someone else’s building. All of a sudden, they have no operating capital, and they find themselves robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“That’s not the way to run a successful business.”
She also noted the recent move of a city storefront church.
“These folks were giving free baptisms every time it rained,” she said. “They had to find somewhere else to have services. How can you rent a building with a severely leaking roof?”
Fletcher said her primary interest is seeing a level playing field for budding entrepreneurs.
“There are two groups of business people: Those who’ve made it and those who want to make it,” she said. “I have nothing but respect for the first group and the success they’ve had. But they need to be held accountable so that the second group will have an opportunity to be successful, too.”