By Dave Taylor
Hawesville, Ky. is the county seat of Hancock County, the center of the county’s operations, but it’s also quickly becoming a gloomy parade of abandoned properties and deteriorating structures, despite years of discussions on how to prevent that very thing. In its role as the county’s newspaper of record, the Hancock Clarion is beginning a campaign to highlight the ongoing problem and spur discussions and bring the community together to improve the place many call home.
Beginning this week the Clarion will spotlight a specific property, speak to the property owner, and encourage them and the community as a whole to push to beautify the city and county and fix, renovate or eliminate abandoned and blighted properties.
“Eventually this is going to totally ruin the city,” said Hawesville mayor Charles King. “I mean it’s like a cancer, it’s going in every direction.”
Even the definition of the word blight, often used to describe such properties, emphasizes the dire condition and hints at the greater effects. Blight is defined partly as a “ruined state” but also as a “destructive force.”
Clarion publisher Donn Wimmer said he’s seen the appearance of the city of Hawesville decline rapidly, beginning as far back as the 1950s when he first moved back to the area after moving away after school.
“I’ve seen it really go down just recently, and it’s getting worse, and there’s people that are just going off and leaving their house,” Wimmer said.
Driving through downtown Hawesville from any direction leads drivers past multiple abandoned homes and businesses and others that are extremely dilapidated, to the point that Wimmer finds ways to hide it from visitors from out of town by sending them on a route that bypasses the city to get to his home west of town. “When I have friends coming that have never been to Hawesville, I’d like them to either come at night or come across the Natcher bridge and come in this side, not down through here,” Wimmer said, motioning toward Main Street.
The paper’s campaign isn’t one about pointing fingers or blame for things that have happened in the past, but instead about creating a movement toward improvement. “We want everybody to come on board and be a good team and see if we can work together and get this thing taken care of, a little bit at a time,” he said. “We’ve got to start now somewhere. And if we fail then we fail, but at least we’re going to start.”
King and city leaders, like the county leaders, have tried for years to find ways to deal with abandoned buildings, but not much visible progress has been made. “I’m 100 percent in favor of that,” King said of pushing for a cleanup. While some structures are simply not being maintained, others, including several in the heart of Hawesville, have sat abandoned and overgrown for many years and will likely need to be demolished through a lengthy legal process.
“We’re not set up to do that,” he said. “To do it right – and you’ve got to do it right or else you end up in a lawsuit – you have to have a building inspector and he has to be trained and know what he’s doing. And it’s a procedure that take s a lot of money and time, but it can be done.”
A building inspector and/or a code enforcement officer could inspect structures for dangerous problems and enforce the standards set by the government for the level of maintenance required, and those that fall short could face fines, liens, and eventually the legal forfeiture of properties in the worst cases.
But the city doesn’t have a building inspector or a code enforcement officer and King said they can’t afford one right now after taking big economic hits due to the coronavirus pandemic and a lawsuit with the bonding company for the new wastewater treatment plant. “The city of Hawesville’s broker right now than they’ve been in years,” he said.
The answer might come from the county, which he said could hire a building inspector and code enforcement officer to enforce the rules. “They need to have a building inspector and a code enforcer and why not hire the same guy for both?” he said. “If we don’t do something, it’s going to get worse,” he said.
145 River Street
The home at 145 River Street sits among a row of large old homes that were once stately and inhabited by the wealthy and successful in town, but now this house is empty with the porch slowly collapsing.
Della Mitchell, from Philpot, Ky. owns the property, which she said she bought as a foreclosure.
“Our intentions when we bought it was to fix it up for my son,” Mitchell said. “However, he’s no longer married so now our intention is to fix it up and sell it.”
She acknowledged that the house isn’t pleasing to the eye right now, but that the property isn’t abandoned because her husband goes over there about once a week.
“He said the front porch looked like it’s sagging pretty bad so he knows he’s going to have to get that off of there,” she said.
Her son mows the yard about once a week too, while the property waits for much needed work.
“Our intentions are to remodel and sell,” she said. “However, life happens and it’s just taken us longer to get started on it than we had hoped.”