On a late June evening, shoppers strolled between open storefronts on Cuero’s East Main Street, where historic buildings were brought to life with live music and extended business hours.
During the event, The Art of Shopping, Cuero Main Street Director Sandra Osman oversaw her work.
Economic development through historic preservation is the mission of Texas Main Street, part of the Texas Historical Commission’s Community Heritage Development Division. Through events like The Art of Shopping, Cuero’s Main Street program attracts customers to downtown businesses.
Although such events promote appreciation of historic downtowns, Osman said the process of revitalization begins with filling vacant buildings.
Although Cuero’s East Main Street is thriving and has recently seen two businesses open in previously vacant buildings, other parts of town, like West Main Street, need work, Osman said.
In June 2017, the Cuero City Council passed an ordinance that requires owners of vacant buildings to keep them up so the building could be presentable for lease or sale. An initial contact letter was sent in late January 2018 to the owners of the city’s vacant buildings, but rather than be proactive, vacant property owners have waited for the city to follow up, Osman said.
Enforcement will be implemented in the near future. The goal, she said, is to stimulate restoration or repairs to bring about the lease or sale of local vacant buildings, Osman said. Cuero has about 25 vacant buildings.
According to the ordinance, a vacant building is one that is unoccupied, or occupied by an unauthorized person, and unsecured; has not had utilities provided continuously for more than six months; or has had two or more violations of property maintenance ordinances within the past 12 months.
Although fees are outlined in the ordinance, Osman said its primary goal is to open up communication between the city and property owners who’ve left buildings empty for long periods of time. She hopes the ordinance won’t be viewed as a punishment.
“We’re looking at absentee owners,” Osman said. “When they don’t see it every day, they stop thinking about it.”
The reasons for vacant buildings vary, but among the most common are family disputes, owners living in other cities and owners not having enough resources to complete restoration projects, said Cathy Sak, Texas Downtown Association executive director.
Eleven other Texas cities have passed vacant property ordinances, with San Antonio being the first to adopt a similar ordinance. Cuero is the smallest city to pass one, Sak said.
Sak said vacant property ordinances can be useful to reduce downtown blight.
“When you have these vacant buildings, 95 percent of the time they’re not being maintained,” Sak said.
A 2012 study by Donovan Rypkema, an economist specializing in historic preservation, estimated the typical community cost of a vacant building to be about $220,000. The number accounts for lost rents, property taxes, utilities, supplies, services and salaries.
Emily Koller, a planner with Main Street’s Town Square Initiative, said multiplying the amount by the number of vacant buildings on a single main street, like Cuero’s, gives city officials a way to talk about economic impact.
Beyond economic impact, vacant buildings affect the lives of neighbors like Kathy Gips, who is the sole occupant of a building she owns at 119 Esplanade St. in Cuero, where she works as a loan broker in one of its offices.
“It feels isolated,” Gips said.
Gips said a building next door that has been vacant for several years recently began to smell. She said she’s lucky her business is dependent on foot traffic.
This, said Sak, is the idea behind vacant property ordinances.
“No one person’s property rights are more important than their neighbor’s,” Sak said.
Osman said she hopes similar ordinances can be used by other cities.
After giving a presentation on the ordinance at a 2018 conference, Osman said she received a lot of interest in what her city had done.
“We had up to 35 cities that contacted us afterward,” Osman said. “This is a tool, and it’s meant to be a positive tool.”