Homeowners will have to spark East Hillside turnaroundA knowing smile creeps across Mona Cheslak’s face when she talks about her early days as a neighborhood activist. Cheslak has seen plenty of change during her time with the East Hillside Community Club, where she currently presides as president.
By: Michael Kooi, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
A knowing smile creeps across Mona Cheslak’s face when she talks about her early days as a neighborhood activist.
“I used to get excited about this stuff,” she explained to me over a beer at her favorite East Hillside watering hole. “Now, I’m more of a ‘wait and see’ type.”
Cheslak has seen plenty of change during her time with the East Hillside Community Club, where she currently presides as president. Even more change may follow if the city decides to implement a proposed neighborhood stabilization plan for the East Hillside.
Resident homeowners will need to take a hard look at the potential risks and rewards of the stabilization plan, because it won’t succeed without their leadership.
At first glance, there’s a lot to like. The proposed stabilization plan would feature initiatives to 1) attract new businesses to the neighborhood, or help existing businesses expand, 2) spur owner investment in existing houses and rental properties, 3) rehabilitate vacant properties, 4) improve perceptions of the neighborhood, and 5) provide financial incentives for hospital and/or university employees to buy homes in the neighborhood.
Of course, all of these efforts will require money, which is why the plan calls for establishing a tax increment financing, or TIF, district within the East Hillside to provide it.
For the uninitiated, TIFs provide a mechanism for reinvesting all new property tax revenues generated within a neighborhood back into that neighborhood, as opposed to sharing them with the city at large. The more a neighborhood can raise its property values over the life of the TIF, the more money it will have for reinvesting in future growth.
What this plan won’t do, however, is turn the neighborhood into a homogenous hamlet of happy homeowners. Rather, it aims to add by addition (as opposed to subtraction) by making the East Hillside a more attractive place to live for all of its current resident groups — homeowners, businesses, long-term renters and students alike. In short, tomorrow’s East Hillside will look a lot more like today’s than yesterday’s if the plan works.
Homeowners who can make peace with this reality could reap real benefits — beginning with improved property values. The stabilization plan would expand opportunities for homeowners to get low or no-interest loans for home repairs and improvements and thus directly raise the values of their homes. Meanwhile, increased funds for rehabbing or demolishing vacant houses, which can drag down property values and neighborhood character, could provide an indirect boost. Finally, fresh businesses, improved infrastructure and targeted homebuyer incentives could nudge demand for all properties upward.
Yes, this is a best-case scenario. And yes, some of these initiatives could serve as double-edged swords. In our chat, Mona and I agreed that a quaint little coffee shop would make a nice addition to Ninth Street. But a bar or big box retail? Probably not so much — especially if there’s more traffic and noise.
But that’s how the process works. Some will benefit from change more than others, and some of that will be driven by personal tastes and tolerances as much as by the county assessor.
Despite the risks, Mona remains optimistic about the stabilization plan’s prospects. While she understands the frustrations of homeowners who feel forgotten or even betrayed by past efforts of this ilk, she sees the plan and the accompanying TIF as “a significant
opportunity” to shape the future of a neighborhood that still has excellent proximity to amenities and enough traditional neighborhood character to call “home.”
I hope East Hillside homeowners seize it by getting involved now.
Michael Kooi is a freelance writer living in Duluth. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.