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February 7, 2013

What to do with Depot Street?

Walton Main Street considers possibilities of newly-acquired buildings

WALTON — Now that Walton Main Street owns two buildings along Depot Street, it’s starting to figure out what to do with them.

Walton Main Street board members met with residents Tuesday night to solicit suggestions for the use of a large commercial building and a smaller building at 106 Depot St., both of which were deeded over to the organization Dec. 30.

The larger building, spanning two lots at 108-110 Depot St., was built in 1920 and encloses about 3,000 square feet, according to Cass County property records.

It was most recently a grocery store, said Gordon Southern, a Walton Main Street board member. Main Street president Mac Martin said the building had stood empty for at least a decade.

Main Street board members had pursued getting the building for at least the last two years, Martin said.

“Our basic idea was to get control of the building, so if down the way a grand plan was instituted, we would have control of it,” Martin explained. “We wouldn’t have to buy it.”

Now the organization has acquired the buildings and is looking at how to obtain a planning grant.

“That was my main goal all along,” said Martin, “to get a hold of the property and then decide what to do with it.”

Neither building has usable electric or plumbing installed, said Southern. Consultants from Leo Brown Construction did a preliminary walk-through with him, he said, and estimated that the buildings, though structurally sound, would require about $300,000 to $400,000 worth of work to turn them into anything usable.

“There’s a lot of things that’ll have to be done in order for it to be a usable structure again,” Martin said.

Southern added that work would include installing electrical wiring and plumbing, remodeling the inside and installing a kitchen.

It’s less than the cost of building a new building, said Southern — but not by much. The Leo Brown consultants estimated that tearing down the old buildings and putting up a pole-barn-style building would cost in the neighborhood of $500,000.

The smaller building, formerly a hardware store, needs much less work, Southern said. He guessed that with some volunteer effort it could be electrified by the annual May Day festival in late May.

Residents on Tuesday told board members they’d like to see a variety of establishments fill the spot. Most of the conversation centered on a grocery store if the town could get one, or a community center.

However, Gordon thinks the chances of the town attracting a grocery store again are “slim to none.” The area’s just not a big enough demographic, he explained.

Other ideas included putting in an antique mall, a gymnasium or after-school center, or locating a farmers market on the property.

Many residents supported the idea of a community center. One woman called it “a great idea” during the discussion.

About 90 percent of the suggestions Southern has fielded in discussions with Walton residents have had something to do with founding a community center, he said.

Residents said after the meeting that many locals use the library, the American Legion, or facilities at Walton Christian Church for events, and wish there were a community center to fill the need for a medium-sized event center.

At Walton Christian, secretary/treasurer Jackie Knapp said the church is used once a week for a men’s basketball group, and hosts some kind of event at least every other weekend.

“And it’s not always members in the church,” Knapp added. “There’s no place for people to have anything around here.”

The library’s community room is too small for many events, like graduations, said Southern, who is also library director. The Lions Den is small, too, and the American Legion hall is too big for medium-sized events.

“That middle range is where we’re really lacking,” he said.

Main Street board members have watched how Fulton raised funds to build its community center and observed how often the Deer Creek Community Center gets used. Both are fast becoming the centers of their respective communities, board members said.

At this point, Southern said most residents tell him they’re in favor of remodeling the buildings rather than tearing them down — exactly contrary to what he was thinking at first.

But “in reality,” he said, “we’re not going to do any big work until we get through this grant process. Most people have no idea how long it takes for those. They think that you just go down and ask and they write you a check.”

He referred to a process Walton Main Street board members may undergo to apply for a $30,000 planning grant available through the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

That would cover the costs associated with developing a long-term plan for the two buildings and other properties along Depot Street — including three already owned by the town and one owned by the Walton Lions Club.

The local Masonic Lodge is located just down the street, as well.

If the town of Walton applied for and received the grant, it would be responsible for putting up 10 percent, or $3,000, to match the rest of the $30,000 OCRA grant.

Applying for the grant and carrying out the planning would take at least a couple of years, said Walton Main Street board members. Martin anticipated little expense associated with maintaining the buildings as is until planning is finished.

Other grants are available to fund actual remodeling, if that’s what ends up in the long-range plan, but Walton Main Street would have to hire a certified grant-writer to apply for some of them.

So now the board members are getting busy recruiting support, particularly from local businesses, said Martin.

“We want them to be behind it and be a positive force, and we’re going to need some extra money,” he said.

In the meantime, said Gordon, he’s gotten several offers of volunteer labor and supplies to outfit the smaller building in time for the May Day festival.

Martin said being able to use that smaller building for the festival would “show the community that we’re serious about doing something.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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