By Casey Crowley

Visitors to Baker City’s downtown historic district see landmark buildings such as the Geiser Grand and the Baker Tower, but they also see around 16 empty or under-utilized properties.

City officials hope to address that situation soon.

City Manager Fred Warner Jr. said progress hasn’t been as fast as some people would like, but he expects the topic will come up during the City Council’s goal-setting session later this year.

Baker City Downtown, a group of business and building owners that formed in 2017 to promote the downtown retail district, has contacted owners of vacant property to inquire about their interest in selling or renting properties.

Baker City Downtown’s Economic Vitality Committee met Wednesday to discuss the situation.

The organization is working with the city through Robin Nudd, the city’s director of community development and liaison with Baker City Downtown.

During Wednesday’s meeting the five-member committee talked about the 16 vacant properties and how some of them could be used.

Nudd presented the committee with copies of ordinances from Florence and Silverton. The Florence ordinance requires building owners to maintain certain standards with storefronts, whether there is an operating business or not. The Silverton ordinance prohibits building owners from boarding up windows and dooors, among other things unless they’re being renovated.

Nudd also gave the Baker City Downtown committee recommendations from the Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that tries to find uses for vacant buildings.

One of its recommendations is to require owners of all vacant buildings to register their property with the city.

During the City Council’s Jan. 8 meeting, newly elected Councilor Ken Gross suggested the city consider imposing a tax on Main Street buildings, but exempting from the tax any business open at least 30 hours per week. Ten of the 16 vacant downtown properties are on Main Street.

Warner said the Council could consider such a tax, but he suggested the city avoid penalizing people who are struggling financially.

For more than 20 years the city raised money for downtown promotions through an Economic Improvement District. It assessed a tax on properties as well as an annual business license fee within or near the historic district.

The tax and license fee raised about $42,000 per year, much of which went to Historic Baker City Inc.

But in 2013, the year the Economic Improvement District expired, owners of property totaling more than 33 percent of the total property value in the District voted against continuing the tax (34.74 percent) for another five years.

The City Council declined to continue assessing the business license fee, although business owner objections, which totaled 18 percent, didn’t reach the 33-percent threshold that canceled the fee, as was the case with the property tax assessment.

Nudd said city officials need to look at incentives for building owners, as well as potential penalties, when trying to address the vacancy issue.

Officials also need to determine what constitutes a “vacant” building.

Empty storefronts can have more than a visual effect.

During Veterans Day weekend Baker City Gold and Silver, 1812 Main St., was targeted by a burglar who broke into the adjacent vacant building, then entered the business through a shared wall.

The burglar, who has not been caught, took items worth more than $15,000, owner Garry McLin said.

The buildings on each side of the business are empty.

McLin believes the property from which the burglar entered, 1820 Main St., is an eyesore. He endorses City Councilor Gross’ idea about a potential tax on unused buildings.

McLin said he tried to contact the owner of his neighboring building to discuss buying it, but he didn’t receive a response.

“I’m just waiting to see what is going to be done, something needs to be done,” McLin said.

He also said he knows someone who’s interested in renting the building.

The city is interested in buying the property at 1840 Resort St., which borders Central Park. The property includes a home, built in 1912, as well as an adjacent parking lot that could be used by park visitors.

See more in the Jan. 18, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.