Drive along Winner Road through the Independence's Englewood neighborhood and the initial appearances are fairly good. Houses generally are well-maintained by occupying owners, and the Englewood Arts District has undergone a little revival in recent years, some vacancies notwithstanding in the retail corridor.
After one journeys more than a block or two from Winner Road, though, the landscape isn't as inviting. In some cases, empty lots exist where a house used to stand before decay and demolition.
Monte Short, a longtime developer and Englewood resident who rents houses in the area, would like to see the city and its residents find a way to have large-scale revival. In a presentation to an informal group of civic leaders convened by Mayor Eileen Weir that meets monthly, Short used a color-coded map of the area to show green and light-blue areas along Winner giving way to areas colored orange and red (vacant).
“Along Winner Road, we have a nice corps of homes,” Short said. “When you get away from that, there's lots of darker colors.”
“We have to get people to re-invest and go into the neighborhood,” he said. “There's many places being bought up by out-of-state owners, looking to make a quick buck.
“People I rent to would love to own; they just don't have the capital to do it.”
While Short wasn't looking for immediate answers and solutions, he said it's clear some kind of incentive program is needed. What exactly that looks like – it's far too early to tell.
Short said that of approximately 2,500 homes in the area on his map, the split between rented and owner-occupied is about 50/50.
“In the last 50 years, we've had one residence built upon; 200 have come down,” he said.
Weir said the issue is too big for a self-contained taxing jurisdiction to fund.
“It's going to require the entire city believing this is worth funding,” she said. “It's not about (lack of) marketing. It's about quality.”
A 353 tax abatement program could be helpful, and several places in northwest Independence have been rehabbed using that approach, but Short said meeting the required financial match can be problematic.
Local insurance agent Trevor Tilton said that many times, it's a matter “of not having the right financing available.”
Later, Weir said a sales tax is a method of funding, though citizens recently rejected what amounted to a local internet sales tax. But there are plenty of other economic development tools to consider, she said – just what exactly might work for Englewood is nowhere near clear at this point.
“We clearly need to create some kind of funding mechanism,” Weir said. “This is not something that can be solved just (through) code enforcement and zoning. We need some sort of motivation to get local people into these neighborhoods and give them an opportunity to make some kind of investment.”
“They're not exclusive to that neighborhood'; there's other areas of the city like that,” she said of housing issues. “But to make an impact, you have to make an investment.”
The Downtown Redevelopment Coordinating Committee, a volunteer citizens group of which Short has been a part, is scheduled to present ideas and plans to the City Council later in the fall, but Weir said Englewood housing was not exactly in their scope.
“They were tasked with looking at connectivity and infrastructure,” Weir said. “Housing isn't specific to that, but it certainly is a complement to our expanded idea of downtown.
“All of this comes together,” she said. “Looking around the country, seeing others who have done successful housing programs, it was an area people wanted to be near. Some areas that hadn't been very desirable suddenly became desirable.”
While some spot demolition could be employed – as the city has done with some other structures the past couple years – Assistant City Manager Mark Randall emphasized a cautious approach there, lest the city create too much of a “missing front tooth.”
Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Economic Development Council and the Independence Chamber of Commerce, said people that talk often about the need to attract more commercial development in those neighborhoods. That won't happen by itself, though.
“That can't really happen without changing the demographics,” he said.
Short said Englewood can be a long-term area for artists – not just an area to display works. In some cities where artists have jump-started a neighborhood revival, rents grew too expensive to allow them to stay. Even Kansas City has been an example of that, but Englewood doesn't need to be another one.
“We have an abundance of things where artists can stay,” he said.
“The concept here is to get the worst houses fixed up – it's as simple as that,” he said. “We're trying to flip (the bad stuff).”