HELMSBURG — Trucks pulled over and parked. Cameras were out and clicking.

Three buildings in the center of Helmsburg were being crushed and carted off, along with the appliances, furniture and a boat former tenants had left in the yards.

“It’s the most exciting thing that has happened since I’ve been there, to see those buildings go,” resident Cindy Steele said.

The Helmsburg Sawmill bought the three lots last month and had the houses on them — one of which was heavily damaged in a fire earlier this year — bulldozed to the ground.

For tax purposes, all three were valued at $30,100, according to assessment records.

Melanie Pool said the sawmill owners wanted to buy the lots to “clean up the town and utilize them for business.” The immediate plan is to sow grass, but other plans might pop up next year, she said.

The Pools also have volunteered labor and equipment to clean up other properties, Brown County Redevelopment Commission member Tim Clark said.

The work so far has been the talk of the town, Pool said — “customers and everybody in Helmsburg, people driving by. It’s been kind of comical.”

More than a dozen residents and business owners have been participating in Helmsburg Leadership Team meetings since last fall. The last one, on April 12, attracted nearly 30 people, Steele said.

Earlier this month, the Brown County Redevelopment Commission passed a resolution to county boards declaring all of unincorporated Helmsburg an economic development area, or EDA.

What an EDA will allow the county to do is to buy properties in Helmsburg that are “distressed” or “abandoned” and to convert them to livable, owner-occupied homes, or to clear them and build new properties.

The Brown County Area Plan Commission was to review that resolution April 25 to make sure it’s in line with the county’s comprehensive plan, then pass it to the county commissioners. Then it’ll get a public hearing and be open to a citizen remonstrance, the resolution says.

The redevelopment commission isn’t sure yet where the money to do that work might come from, but the “sock factory money” is the funding mentioned in the resolution. That’s the $400,000 or so which the county made through the sale of the old For Bare Feet sock factory in 2014.

The redevelopment commission has already tapped that fund to get a $30,000 budget this year; without it, its budget was zero.

RDC member Jim Schultz said before committing to use any more of that money, the commission needs to wait until a “next steps” proposal comes back from Revitalination, a group which attended the last Helmsburg Leadership Team meeting.

Revitalination is led by John Dockrey, who’s described on the MartinRiley architecture/engineering firm’s webpage as having an “ability to recognize opportunities where others see problems” and a history of “reinvent(ing) his hometown after years of no new jobs, abandoned homes, empty buildings and all that comes with it.”

Clark said creating a TIF — tax-increment financing — district also could be a funding option, but steps haven’t been taken to do that. In a TIF district, property tax money can be collected in a special fund when a commercial-zoned property is improved; then, that “new” tax money can be used to make other improvements in the TIF area or buy more properties.

Steele said what’s happening in Helmsburg started with a group of concerned residents, and they’re thankful that the county RDC is able to help them get things done.

“Those three distressed properties were, like, the primary issue for the people in Helmsburg, because it was a health hazard; there were some drug problems going on there,” Steele said.

“It’s also to prevent properties that are distressed from being acquired and rented out in the condition they’re in now. It’s a perpetuating problem we’ve had.

“There’s a sense of urgency in Helmsburg that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the county.”

The RDC also is trying for a grant that would allow it to develop more comprehensive economic development plans for the entire county.

RDC members have been looking at other areas as possible candidates for development, including Gnaw Bone and Bean Blossom, because of their access to highways, infrastructure such as water and high-speed internet, and available land.

But RDC members said they understand that community development plans need to be “a grassroots thing” in order to be effective.

“We want a team of local leaders to stand up and get aligned like the folks did in Helmsburg,” RDC President Dave Redding said about other incorporated communities.

“They’re causing stuff to move fast in a good way for everyone.”

If you go

What: Next Helmsburg Leadership Team meeting

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 14

Where: Brown County Community Church, Main and First streets

What the Helmsburg Economic Development Plan says

Objectives:

  • To benefit the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the citizens of Brown County;
  • To increase the economic well-being of the county and state;
  • To protect and increase property values and increase the tax base of the county;
  • To promote significant opportunities for gainful employment, and expand and retain existing business enterprises;
  • To provide for local public improvements in the area;
  • To make available more owner-occupied family homes;
  • To increase the quality of life of current residents and business owners.

Phase 1: The Brown County Redevelopment Commission acquires “identified distressed abandoned properties” to “convert them to livable owner-occupied dwellings” or to “clear and construct new replacement properties.” Buildings or land would be offered for sale or lease to the public.

Phase 2: Eliminating blighted properties “should open up opportunities for business investment,” especially along State Road 45 where there is sewer access and high-speed Internet.

Phase 3: Project leaders would seek developers to buy properties in the area for commercial development and new homes, focusing on owner-occupied homes as opposed to rentals.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.