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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Portsmouth City Council Sings the Greatest Hits of the Marting's Properties

"Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler, chairman of the city’s Parks, Recreation, Service, Buildings & Cultural Committee, presented a letter to his committee last week from Realtor Bob Gambill stating that he is prepared to proceed with the appraisal of the dilapidated Babcock building pending permission from council...

"Several members of City Council argued that by selling the property, which is located directly behind the Marting’s building, they may be getting rid of property that would be an important part of the package should they sell the Marting’s building...

"Saddler said he questions whether the Babcock property is part of the Marting’s property to begin with."

(Frank Lewis. "Saddler Says City Should Sell the Babcock Building." 
Portsmouth Daily Times. February 18, 2014.)

The Next Installment in the Never-ending 
Saga of the Marting's Building

Well... once again city council debates the potential for property known as the "Babcock Building" and the "Marting's Building." What solution best accommodates the continued ownership of the eyesores? The city leaders struggle with maintaining the properties, possibly selling the properties, or tabling motions since no one can be sure speculation is anything but wishful thinking. The merry-go-round of indecision continues in city hall.

It sounds as if the owners aren't certain if the properties are a package deterioration or separate blights in downtown Portsmouth. The city doesn't know its own details of ownership? That is discouraging itself, but does it really matter? Both are empty, nasty building. One is literally tumbling down, and the other is outdated, unfit, and "going down slow" to quote an old Howlin' Wolf blues tune:

"I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin`
Oh yeah, I`m goin` down slow."

How did the city get into this fix with no reasonable solution in the first place? Let's just say deals of deeds were shadily finagled, then money was passed that allowed Portsmouth to possess the monuments of mismanagement. It's such an old, worn tale that I won't take time to restate. Allegiance and promises to some good old boys led to the folly of the acquisition. The rest is well-recorded history.

Time and again the populace has voted and expressed their opinion that nothing much could prudently occupy their dearly tax-paid space. Sales have been proposed and much contemplation has caused periodic reports of renovation or utilization or demolition. There have been more schemes for doing something with the Marting's property(ies) than the number of speeding tickets issued in 25 MPH city speed traps.

Since we, the taxpayers, own and finance (taxes, upkeep, insurance, safety repairs) the continued vacancy of the buildings, one might think we should be able to determine exactly what to do with them. Have you ever attended a council meeting? You can speak on the timer and have a few minutes to voice your opinion to which no reply is required. Rules are established to keep certain "troublemakers" from taking up valuable council time.

The meetings themselves are about as stimulating and informative as sitting in the local Kroger's parking lot and watching the employees unload the produce truck. Maybe I exaggerate a little ... too much or too little credit to council? But, suffice it to say there is a lot of bland reporting, warning of impending hardship, harrumphing, posturing, and tabling of activity.

I remember reading in the Times that at least one city council member recommended demolition of the Marting's structure. Then, others, with hearts full of memories of never-to-return "good old days" and downtown department store glory, would reminisce a storied renaissance for Chillicothe Street, and motions would be tabled while the structures continued to remain as constant reminders of "what once was." Oh, if we could only go back, so on an so on.

Is the "gold" in the properties merely prospective, wishful glinting in the eyes of city council? I seriously believe they don't know the value or the condition of their holdings. After getting stuck with the empty spaces, they cannot now withdraw gracefully and recuperate a little of their losses without stirring up the natives who will undoubtedly shout "I told you so!" I mean, people in town have already been subjected to the weird rhythms of the rotating trash schedule, so why shouldn't they express their disdain over another such fiasco?

Let me make a suggestion or two or three:

* Perhaps, the first place to begin some actual progress would be to tell the taxpaying public just how much their ownership of the properties costs -- the dollars spent, the safety issues, the psychological costs of crumbling aesthetics on an already depressed town weary of bickering, inactive government.

* Then, and this is very important, the city could entertain ideas for immediate solutions by throwing speculation out of the equation and setting an open, public hearing for necessary actions. After the hearing, in a timely manner, council could pass a best-reasoned solution as a solid decision to solve the problem.

* After that, council could commence actual work despite the inevitable criticism and stick to a work schedule that demands timely completion.

Upon completion, the council members could vow to never again allow discouraging words of the Marting's property to perplex their minds and cloud their hallowed halls.

I think I know what the decision would be, so allow me to go on daydreaming.

I suggest a public dedication ceremony on the new parking lot created by the demolition and a toast both commemorating the glorious past and stipulating continued efforts for a new, wonderful future as the Portsmouth High School Band plays "Beautiful Ohio" and "Auld Lang Syne." Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" would also be appropriate:

"Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot"

And, of course, at the dedication all of the local politicians would insist on making heartrending speeches about beautiful bygone days and "even better futures." Rivulets of tears over retail sales remembrance would be shed on the cold, clean concrete while obligatory smiles would fill the downtown void.

And, thinking ahead, the lot could be used as a scaled down site for the ever-popular swap days, which now, I believe, has no permanent home in Scioto County. Vendors and junk and animals and masses of milling humanity! 

Of course, one thing must be considered: How much money does it take to upkeep a new parking lot these days? And, there's always the question of whether the downtown actually needs new parking spaces. Let's face it, the businesses there are not exactly a Mecca for eager shoppers. I guess council could reinstall parking meters and rehire meter maids, but ... I don't think the proceeds would come close to covering the expense.

After further contemplation, I think maybe it would be better to leave everything as it is now -- a gigantic eyesore stuck in political quandary -- yes, leave it as is and construct a historical plaque onsite declaring the Marting's property(ies?) an artwork of urban realism.

You know, invite people to experience firsthand Appalachian small town decay and the real effects of living in the past. People could even don hardhats and tour the buildings in hopes of witnessing falling bricks and plaster -- real folk art in natural transformation. Concessionaires might even set up onsite selling Marting's souvenirs and food inspired by the angst.

When you own a deed to a piece of history, you just don't know what to do with it. It's worth is really valued two ways: (1) in the mind of the deed holders, and (2) in the willing hands of those with dollars to spend. Which worth is material as opposed to immaterial? It's pretty easy to figure out. In fact, Billy Preston so aptly sang that "nothing from nothing leaves nothing":

"Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
And I'm not stuffin'
Believe you me
Don't you remember I told ya
I'm a soldier in the war on poverty, yeah
Yes, I am"

Whatever the council decides to do, you can bet they will give consideration... after consideration... after consideration... to solutions in the best interests of those who already paid too dearly for the failing structures. Every day some more Portsmouth taxpayers expire without any compensation and no further need of mere speculation. In my best Cher voice: "Drums keep pounding rhythm to the brain, and the beat goes on."

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