New fix for old buildings?

As manufacturers moved their operations offshore over the past decade, they left behind the empty shells of the industries that used to propel the local economy.

Across Hickory and the rest of the Catawba Valley, the old buildings sit silent, reminders of a lost period when most people took manufacturing and ample jobs for granted.

Filling the buildings with other uses has become a new problem for area economic and government officials. The puzzle is all the more tricky in an economy that can't seem to find its legs.

The city of Hickory, where about 100 such buildings - plus another 200 empty storefronts - pock the landscape, is taking on the challenge with a new, broad approach that also aims to improve the neighborhoods surrounding the structures.

At Hickory City Council's planning retreat in February, council member Sally Fox suggested a program to help owners and developers re-use empty commercial and industrial buildings.

She expressed concern that so many empty shells can hurt surrounding neighborhoods and that taking a proactive approach to the “fairly depressing” problem could put Hickory on the “cutting edge.”

In response to Fox's idea, city staff divided Hickory into six districts, then took one of those districts – West Hickory – and determined what type of vacant buildings exist there and how to market them. Staffers then studied which spots might qualify for grant assistance or historic preservation tax credits, and looked at how the city could improve sidewalks and other infrastructure in the neighborhood to make it attractive to developers.

“We're trying to gather all the resources available to the city and property owners so that when a potential investor comes in, we can say, ‘In this area, here's what have. Here's the tools we know would work,'” said Assistant City Manager Andrea Surratt. “We'll have a menu of things an investor can look at.”

Each year, the city will budget money for the program and also offer economic development incentives targeted toward building re-use projects. The City Council last week approved new incentive programs that would award money for projects that re-use vacant buildings.

Hickory developer Jimmy Mitchell is intimately familiar with the obsolescence that can get in the way of marketing many of the vacant structures: low ceilings, asbestos, low garage door heights, multiple stories and lack of sprinkler systems, firewalls and other features required by today's codes.

“The question is how much will it cost to put the building back in a safe operational condition,” he said. “We can't answer that until we get a prospect and they tell us what they want.”