The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

Anyone who frequently walks in downtown Washington had to feel a sense of surprise when they came upon North Main and West Chestnut streets last week.

A long-abandoned storefront near the corner of those streets that had been sitting empty for a generation and steadily decaying was at long last being torn down. Year after year, it had just become part of the landscape – an eyesore taking up space, a persistent reminder of how parts of Washington’s downtown business district were being hamstrung by blight.

The fact that heavy machinery is dismantling the building and others adjacent to it is a small but necessary step the city is taking in getting rid of vacant, rundown properties. As Washington Mayor Scott Putnam acknowledged, the building “needed to come down for a long time.” But whether it’s in Washington, Uniontown, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, or anywhere else that has a surfeit of blighted properties, the process of getting rid of them is long and circuitous. Determining just who owns any one structure can sometimes be an undertaking worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Some owners live out of state, or out of the country. Then, hearings must be scheduled so those owners can make their case about why a building should not face the wrecking ball.

Once these hurdles are cleared, municipalities that are already cash-strapped have to scare up some money to get the work done. Simply tearing down an old house can cost thousands of dollars. The Pennsylvania Housing Financing Agency gave a $700,000 grant to Greene County recently so it could purchase and raze just six blighted homes. Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi told the Observer-Reporter in 2017, “Blight is such a problem, and it’s difficult to find funding for it.”

Despite the headaches it generates, getting rid of blight is crucial if downtown business districts or neighborhoods are going to be revitalized. Vacant, crumbling buildings languishing on weed-packed lots depress the value of homes and businesses nearby, attract criminal activity, and make living in those areas less healthy and safe. They are also off the tax rolls, starving communities of resources.

Washington County has used a land bank to buy foreclosed and abandoned properties, restore them and sell them. Municipalities elsewhere have started imposing a “blight tax” on derelict properties in the hope that the impact on the wallets of owners will move them to take action to either refurbish what they own or get rid of it.

Maybe some longtime residents of Washington will feel a twinge of sadness that the buildings that were once part of a vibrant downtown shopping district long ago are disappearing. That’s understandable. But the overwhelming feeling should be one of relief that these albatrosses around the neck of the community will finally be gone.

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