MARTINEZ -- Three years after city leaders adopted an ordinance requiring owners of unreinforced masonry buildings make their properties earthquake-safe by 2015, only five of 27 buildings have been retrofitted.
With banks tightening credit since the recession, securing funding for a seismic retrofit -- which can cost several hundred thousand dollars -- has been a major obstacle. Unreinforced masonry buildings include those made of brick, stone, concrete block, adobe and clay.
A plan to develop a program with local banks to provide low-interest loans to property owners fizzled when the city couldn't line up a primary lender. Now, city leaders are taking a look at creating a nonprofit economic development corporation that could use public and private money for loans to business and property owners, as well as more traditional marketing activities.
"What we're trying to do is facilitate a lower-cost tool that will help the property owners retrofit their buildings, which will then enhance the economic development in the downtown," Mayor Rob Schroder said. "And that's good for the overall community."
An economic development corporation is a nonprofit independent from city government. Business owners, community leaders and representatives from Main Street Martinez and the Martinez Chamber of Commerce would sit on the board of directors. Funding sources could include private lenders, corporate partners, grants, application fees and the city.
Economic development corporations are operating in communities across California, although most tend to operate at the county level, including in Solano, Fresno and Los Angeles counties.
Since 1996, the city of Gilroy has had an economic development corporation that works to attract and retain businesses, provide resources for entrepreneurs and promote the city as a good place to do business, according to Tammy Brownlow, the Gilroy corporation's president and CEO. The city contributes $200,000 of the annual budget with the remaining $50,000 coming from the chamber of commerce and other private partners, she said.
Gilroy leaders also tried to work with property owners and lenders to get the financing to retrofit downtown buildings that are sitting vacant because they aren't safe, Brownlow said.
"We're kind of in the same situation as Martinez is in as far as trying to identify a program we can set up that isn't completely funded by taxpayer money, but also has some sort of incentive for property owners to step up and take advantage of it," she added.
At a recent meeting, Martinez council members asked staff to come back with more detailed information on the costs, benefits and challenges of setting up an economic development corporation. During the discussion, Councilwoman Lara DeLaney noted that the city would have to hire an experienced administrator to run the corporation -- a position that would command a high salary.
"My concern really is, do we have the financial capability to administratively support it and provide the seed money for projects?" DeLaney said. "While it's a great concept and I certainly want to take the steps to further explore it, I really want us to be cognizant of what the resources we have within our own budget are to support this kind of endeavor."
Most of the remaining 22 unreinforced masonry building properties are in the downtown. Under the ordinance the council adopted in 2009, property owners were supposed to submit an engineering report to the city detailing serious structural defects in the building by August 2011 and construction drawings for the seismic work by this month. The owners have not met those requirements, according to Dave Scola, the city's public works director.
Schroder said he's willing to be flexible with the deadlines if property owners are showing good faith.
"They can't just thumb their nose at it," he said.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.