Nothing to be done about vacated downtown buildings

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

The unoccupied building where Granny's Attic once thrived can technically remain vacant as long as it's secured, according to a Tahlequah ordinance.

City officials say there is no penalty for buildings to be vacant for a long period of time.

Compliance Coordinator Ray Hammons said he's not aware of there being an ordinance in place that would penalize landlords for not utilizing buildings.

"They talked about they were going to try to pass an ordinance that required buildings to only be vacant for so long, and then they'd be forced to sell them or occupy them," Hammons said. "That was found to be unconstitutional, and this is just stemming from a conversation with the former city planner. He said it's unconstitutional and other municipalities have said the same thing."

The one ordinance pertaining to a building being vacant is that as long as it's secured, it can stay vacant.

"The only thing that can happen is the fire marshal can go there and do inspections as he deems necessary. As long as everything is up to snuff and everything secured, landlords can keep the buildings vacant," Hammons said.

In 2015, members of the Tahlequah Main Street Association spoke with the city council about the possibility of implementing a vacancy ordinance to encourage owners to not leave a building empty.

At the time, a recent statute had passed in Oklahoma that prevented municipalities from passing vacancy. Former Mayor Jason Nichols had said the city investigated other ideas provided by TMSA in regard to vacant buildings.

Mayor Sue Catron said TMSA hasn't approached her with concerns to vacant buildings in downtown. However, she has heard from local residents who've expressed concern.

While a variety of entertainment in the area can keep visitors downtown and revenue pumped into Tahlequah's economy, the unoccupied buildings are causing some business owners to worry.

"It is always best when most, if not all of the buildings are occupied," Catron said. "Empty buildings are usually not viewed as an opportunity so much as an indicator of economic hardship by the casual observer. Then there are the issues inherent with any unoccupied structure with potential for vandalism and lack of maintenance."

One local business owner said he's feeling the effects of the vacancy when trying to find a building downtown. The Drip owner Al Soto said he's in a dilemma as a business owner in Tahlequah.

The Drip is currently occupying a building where the landlord said they had to vacate by September. However, after seeking legal representation, Soto has been allowed to stay in the building until the end of the year.

"We're struggling to find a place in town that fits our needs," said Soto. "It's a 'Catch-22.' There's a prominent building, but the space is too small, or it could take months to fix it up and we don't have that time. We believe in Tahlequah, we're invested in Tahlequah, and we want to stay in Tahlequah, but we are struggling to find the right building."

Ward 4 City Councilor Trae Ratliff, who was president of TMSA in 2015, said he's been in discussion with current TMSA Director Jamie Hale in hopes of finding a solution to the vacancy issue.

"Jamie and I have discussed it briefly. I have done some research on a solution, but have not had any luck," Ratliff said. "We tried to find a way to make it happen, but ran into dead ends."

The mayor said due to limited financial resources, the city hasn't considered purchasing the unoccupied buildings on Muskogee Avenue.

"Our downtown area and with all of this COVID stuff, the small businesses downtown - they're starting to feel the pain and the impact of COVID," Hammons said.

"Our community has always supported downtown businesses, but this has put an extra strain on it. We've got to make the extra effort, whether it's curbside, online, or delivery, and keep our local businesses active and going."

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