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Vacant buildings need more than bandages

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We share the Smithfield Town Council’s distaste for vacant, dilapidated buildings. They’re eyesores that cast doubts on a town’s vitality.

Still, we’re not sure the Town Council’s response — an ordinance it adopted this month — is the right approach, though we applaud the council for easing some provisions staff had wanted, including a $15 fee to register a vacant building. We especially question the wisdom of barring owners from boarding up windows on lower floors of vacant buildings. Town Manager Michael Scott argues that it’s too easy to remove a sheet a plywood and enter a building. We’d argue that it’s even easier to break a window.

But more than qualms with a provision here and there, we have to think the council is treating symptoms instead of trying to cure the disease. The town can require an owner to dress up a vacant building or make it safer, but such requirements do nothing to fill an empty building, which is what the council really wants. That’s why we think Smithfield leaders ought to be asking themselves why Smithfield has vacant, dilapidated buildings and seeking policy prescriptions where appropriate.

Businesses close, like the long-ago convenience store on Market Street just west of the Neuse River. But why has that building remained vacant for years now? We could ask the same question of the former convenience store building just east of the railroad underpass and of the former Smithfield Town Hall, which used to be a downtown hotel.

Perhaps each reason is different. After a hurricane or two, we’d be reluctant to open a business in that vacant building near the river. And maybe the former Gabriel Johnston Hotel building is simply a bigger reclamation project than anyone is willing or financially able to take on.

But it’s worth asking if Smithfield rules and regulations make it too hard, too expensive, too restrictive to bring a building back to life. We seem to recall that someone wanted to place a business in that building near the underpass but that the council balked at the intended use.

Like town leaders, we’d rather vacant Smithfield buildings not look vacant. But the ordinance the council adopted this month is akin to pruning a sickly shrub: It might look better, but it’s still sickly and perhaps dying.

What the problem requires is a diagnosis and then treatment. To borrow a line in a story we read recently, healing is impossible if you don’t understand the cause of the injury.

A job done well

Speaking of Smithfield, good work should never go unnoticed or unmentioned, so we want to say “job well done” at Riverside Cemetery. A little while ago now, an errant motorist driving a stolen car knocked down a chunk of the rock wall that borders the cemetery. The fact that he or she didn’t stick around after the mishap tells us the motorist must have been under the influence of something other than good judgment.

But the wall has been repaired, and it looks great.

Town Manager Michael Scott says the credit goes to Jason Ray McKeel, a stone mason out of Dunn. Thank you, Mr. McKeel.

As for the stark contrast between the new stones and the old, weathered ones, “we are looking at some options to make the new and old match better,” Mr. Scott says.

Pressure washing would no doubt to the trick, but Mr. Scott says the town is a little wary of power washing the older sections of the stone wall.

That’s probably wise, but in any event, if we’re going to fault the town for its prescriptions for vacant buildings, we ought to give it a thumbs-up when it goes good work. And Riverside Cemetery is good work.

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