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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Collapsing buildings a sign of stress in rural Eastern Washington

An old commercial building, which hadn’t been used for decades along Reardan, Washington’s main street collapsed overnight, shown Jan. 24, presumably from snow load and deterioration. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
An old commercial building, which hadn’t been used for decades along Reardan, Washington’s main street collapsed overnight, shown Jan. 24, presumably from snow load and deterioration. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When a tree falls in a wild forest, philosophers argue whether it makes a sound. When a building collapses in a small town, does anyone hear it?

Margie Hall, executive director for the Lincoln County Economic Development Council, certainly has. Four times in less than six years in eastern Lincoln County.

It’s an alarming trend.

First to fall was a two-story brick building in downtown Sprague. That was June 2014. A few years later, a wood framed grain elevator collapsed overnight in Edwall and had to be pulled down.

Last month a century-old two-story former auto repair shop sprawled into U.S. Highway 2 in Reardan. And then another old commercial building in Lincoln County – location withheld to deter gawkers – lost its back wall to disintegrating masonry and a soggy foundation. It’s still there, a zombie building in an already tiny remnant of a business district.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation put what remained of downtown Sprague on its most endangered list for 2014. The listing brought hope and the attention of an historic preservation specialist, who volunteered to survey a still-standing hotel. The diagnosis was disappointing.

“The cost to stabilize the building, let alone restore it, was seven-digit cost prohibitive,” Hall said.

Economics makes it difficult to deal with the perceived barriers. Gas stations once ubiquitous leave sites haunted with the ghosts of old fuel tanks. Towns were often sited in flood plains, taking advantage of flat land and easy access to water. Now high water tables and occasional floods undermine foundations.

Some properties have been snapped up cheaply by absentee owners for their portfolios, but with little interest in the life of the community. Aging owners may be unwilling or unable to take on decades of deferred maintenance.

Empty buildings are harder to fill as increasingly stringent codes micromanage beyond providing basic health and safety, raising the cost of upgrading before reoccupying. While there are allowances in building codes and tradeoffs for older properties, not all old buildings are worthy of historic status, and the expertise to play the system can be expensive itself.

Shared walls and basements mean one neglected building endangers others.

“It’s not good enough for one person to make improvements, one person’s problem becomes the neighbors’ problem,” Hall said.

And when a property has been passed down to surprised heirs, the result can be a complicated web of absentee ownership that makes it hard for a willing buyer to complete a purchase.

Ritzville’s downtown historic district also struggles with absentee property owners who provide little maintenance and upkeep to the exteriors. Several buildings obviously have roof related issues, according to Stephen McFadden, economic development director for Adams County.

“If your building isn’t at a minimum sealed up, there’s huge potential for damage,” McFadden said.

It makes it even harder to find someone who loves an old building enough to buy, fix and convert it into new business.

The challenge for small towns is smallness.

“If you don’t have a really well-oiled tourism business, it’s much more difficult to sustain a retail business in a town of 1,600 today than it was 25 years ago,” McFadden said.

Demographically, the Palouse wheat counties are more similar to the Great Plains than to the rest of Washington. Their struggle with the Growth Management Act has been not having much growth to manage.

Lincoln, Garfield and Columbia counties peaked in population in the 1910 census, dropping nearly in half by the turn of this century. Adams, Whitman and Asotin counties follow a similar pattern, except for the urban growth occurring in Othello, Pullman and Clarkston.

What keeps rural economic development folks like Hall and McFadden going are the success stories.

Hall points to the Leffel Otis Warwick office building and the senior center in downtown Wilbur, both built to meet federal standards in a flood plain and proving it can be done. The Harrington Opera House renovation has catalyzed a community now taking advantage of broadband access and opportunities for telecommuting. Davenport has a downtown restaurant again, in a building once considered a candidate for collapse. Ritzville still has an operating movie theater, water park and potential to pull more visitors off the interstate.

Hall, of Lincoln County, hopes the economic barriers are coming down as Spokane’s West Plains develops into an employment magnet. Over 60% of Lincoln County workers already commute out of county to work, usually to Spokane. Not everyone is a fan of urban density, and it’s a short hop from small town living in Sprague to the new Amazon fulfillment center. McFadden also sees potential for Ritzville to grow as a bedroom community, 45 minutes to Moses Lake and 60 minutes to downtown Spokane.

The building collapse in Reardan may turn out to be a blessing. The Washington State Department of Transportation mitigated the old fuel tanks when the highway was widened, so the ghosts are gone. And now the zombie is dead and the site is ready for redevelopment.

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