Blight waits for no one

Altoona isn’t the only municipality in the Southern Alleghenies region, encompassing Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Somerset, Huntingdon and Fulton counties, with a blighted — perhaps dangerous — property within its borders.

Ride the highways, streets and back roads of the six counties, and you will see examples of blight that have been allowed to get out of hand.

Commendably, Altoona has been working to attack the blight nemesis, but recent days have put the proverbial microscope on a troubling situation that did not have to evolve.

The problem is the former Second Lutheran Church on the 1100 block of busy Seventh Avenue. The structure has been described — no doubt accurately — as “an accident waiting to happen.”

The roof at the back end of the property has been described as “open,” and a side wall is buckling.

With deterioration as serious as that, it logically can be wondered what other danger might be lurking within — interior danger that someday might translate into a massive exterior problem, if a major inside failure were to occur.

Regarding Altoona’s city leaders, there is no disagreement that the problem structure needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. In reality, the building already is in the “later” stage.

The city isn’t the only one upon whom blame can be cast for what currently exists. The current owner has not complied with a “red tag” demolition order, reportedly lacking the funds to raze the building.

However, the city can be faulted for not applying adequate continuing pressure along the way to keep the current situation from becoming so serious.

Municipal leaders across the region who are facing the task of addressing dilapidated structures know the red tape such actions entail, as well as the funding challenges amid their local budget constraints.

For Altoona, the big question at this time is whether to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant money, with all of its strings attached, for the demolition, or whether to use city General Fund revenues.

Altoona Community Development Director Lee Slusser has estimated the demolition cost at $100,000 — a sum that otherwise could be used to raze approximately 10 blighted homes. But “kicking the can down the road” regarding the Seventh Avenue structure is now not an option, regardless of the negative financial impact it imposes on the city.

The challenge Altoona is facing regarding the church building should be tutorial for other communities now watching blight “creeping” onto their own landscapes. If strong enough ordinances or strong enough municipal commitment don’t currently exist to address problem properties before they become potentially deadly, this Altoona problem shows why they should react appropriately.

The Mountain City, even with a commendable blight-elimination effort already underway, is showing how a municipality can be perceived as having been caught napping, even if that perception is, in fact, unfair.

The structure in question, which hasn’t hosted religious services for decades, has been vacant for about five years, having most recently been used by a karate organization. The current owner was granted a demolition permit but didn’t follow through with the work.

The structure is so unstable that firefighters have been ordered not to enter it, if a fire were to occur.

Regarding the needed demolition, City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh said “we don’t have a choice.”

Other municipalities might still have a choice if they don’t delay addressing their problem structures.


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