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Commissioners commit $350,000 in 2023 to back Port Authority housing efforts; pledge $70,000 more...

Commissioners commit $350,000 in 2023 to back Port Authority housing efforts; pledge $70,000 more in '24, '25.

This article is brought to you by The Bryan Times

By Ron Osburn

Dec 20, 2022

The Williams County Part Authority met with county commissioners Monday and received commissioner approval for up to $1.05 million over the next three years to help the WCPA bring housing to the county. Pictured from right is WCPA members Sean Rupp, Dawn Fitzcharles and Dave Newcomer; WCPA fundraiser Bill Martin; commissioner-elect Bart Westfall, county auditor Vicki Grimm, and commissioners Brian Davis (obscured), Lew Hilkert and Terry Rummel. At left is commissioner administrative assistant Anne Retcher.

Photo by Ron Osburn.

County commissioners on Monday committed $350,000 in 2023 and pledged $700,000 more in 2024 and 2025 to the Williams County Port Authority (WCPA) to help their efforts to develop housing in the county.

Commissioners Terry Rummel, Lew Hilkert and Brian Davis unanimously agreed after a request for the funding by WCPA board chairman Dave Newcomer, who was accompanied by board members Dawn Fitzcharles and Sean Rupp, along with Bill Martin, Spangler's president who is assisting the board with private fundraising.

For years, the county has identified a need for housing and the WCPA has taken on the issue over the past year or more.

Newcomer and Martin said the county's funds would be combined with private financing and go towards helping purchase land and financing the infrastructure — water, sewer, streets — for multi-lot subdivisions within the county.

Martin said the WCPA has to date secured $600,000 in pledges of funding from private sources, plus another $150,000 from private sources who have agreed to donate pending the decision by the commissioners.

Most, but not all, of the funding has been raised from sources inside Williams County, who recognize the need for more housing in the county, Newcomer said.

Newcomer said the WCPA has options on, or is in various stages of preliminary work on, up to four subdivisions in the county, mentioning potential sites in West Unity, Montpelier, Holiday City and Bryan that total "a little over 200 lots."

Newcomer mentioned part of the plan is to work with the city of Bryan or villages where the developments are located to come up with financial strategies, such as assessments, to recoup the WCPA's outlay once the lots are developed, and the houses built and sold.

Newcomer said the WCPA would make the improved lots available to private contractors and developers, who would build housing that could be more affordable because the developer or builder does not have the added expense of putting in sewer, water, streets and other infrastructure.

"We think we've already demonstrated the effectiveness of building low cost housing with our project in Montpelier," Newcomer said, referring to the sale of a home at just over $150,000 at South Monroe and Ohio streets in Montpelier on a lot secured and prepared by the WCPA. The Port Authority needs the county's funding but not all at once, because it needs funding over time, Newcomer said. Plus the monies can be used as leverage with financial institutions for additional funding or pre-qualification.

Newcomer said the WCPA would like to get started on a subdivision on the southeast side of West Unity.

He said the site has complete plans, is ready to bid and has a WCPA-contracted engineer preparing a request for a proposal to be submitted to contracting firms for about 24 lots on a former farm field southwest of the intersection of U.S. 20A and County Road 21. He estimated the investment at that site at about $1 million.

From there, the WCPA would like to purchase an as-yet-unidentified site in Bryan, where the engineering is now complete; a site in Montpelier which is politically engineered; and a site that's platted in Holiday City.

"So, over the next three years, you can easily see spending this kind of money, and (it is) publicly and privately donated money, to develop lots and hopefully get a number of houses under construction," Newcomer said, noting, "the important part of our problem is there are not lots to build on in any significant quantities ..."

Rupp said his belief is that the "bottleneck" hindering new development in the county has been difficulty of the developers in finding buildable subdivision sites, and the cost of developing infrastructure at those locations.

"... most of the money we're raising to do stuff will go into (purchasing) new lots putting in the water, sewer (and) roads, things like that the developer can't afford to do, and then we don't have to build the houses, we can hand (the builder) a lot they can afford to build a house on ..." Rupp said.

Martin referred to a circa-2018 Williams County Economic Development Corporation study that showed there was a shortage of housing units of all types in the county, a situation he said that has only gotten worse and is having a harmful effect on the local economy.

In fact, some employers he's spoken with have had such an ongoing problem finding employees that they have "given up" trying to expand their workforce.

"We need to turn that around. And I'm convinced (if) we build housing units ... you can attract people to our communities. I know that just from people we've interviewed at Spangler's that come down here from Michigan and Indiana; they want to live here, but there's no place to live, There's not even a place to rent. Vacancy rates are less than 1% ... so it's a situation we find ourselves in ... but we can get out of it," Martin said, adding he believes once the WCPA gets the ball rolling on these early housing subdivisions, private developers will enter the market.

"This (county contribution) is just to get us going, this is a boost, this is a jump. And as we do this, I'm convinced we'll attract other private (builders) that want to get in on this, and we can get to our goal of having enough homes for people to live (in)," Martin said.

Newcomer said figures show the county right now is 2,000 employees short of what employers need. He estimated that at a payroll average of $45,000 per employee, that represents a loss of $90 million to the local economy.

"It's just huge ... get that going, and the housing comes with it," he said.

Fitzcharles thanked commissioners for their contributions present and past.

"What we're asking for today is just a piece of the puzzle ... We know we have a problem and we don't have anyone to help us with this problem but ourselves. I believe we've put together a multifaceted plan that's going to work, and one way or another we're going to get there," she said.

Newcomer said with the county's contribution, the WCPA is convinced they can raise an equal or greater amount of money from the private sector. "Frankly, a lot of them want to see what you're doing," he told commissioners, with Fitzcharles noting the current effort differs from previous efforts, that were centered around just one entity, rather than "spreading it out" among all entities involved, including the county, villages, private developers and homebuyers.

Rummel saluted the "collaborative" nature of the effort.

From comments and questioning from Hilkert, the WCPA will meet with commissioners and provide quarterly updates on their building and financial activity. Hilkert also noted that commissioners, in the event of an economic downturn, may have to review and adjust their future pledges for 2024 and 2025.

Commissioners and the WCPA agreed the funds would be released sometime in the spring of 2023.

Also present Monday were incumbent commissioner Bart Westfall, who will replace Davis in January, and county auditor Vicki Grimm.

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