For Mayor Dave Casebolt, the incentive to redevelop part of Nitro is there. There’s just a bunch of old buildings in the way.
The solution is to tear them down, which is just what Casebolt and demolition expert Rodney Loftis are about to do.
“The whole town’s getting ready to change, and it’ll happen in the next two or three months,” Casebolt said in a Facebook video post.
In the video, he pointed out a few of the 22 structures that will soon meet the wrecking ball.
They are empty structures the city has bought over the years, both residential and commercial. They hark to a time when folks parked where they could and walked. They all once housed thriving businesses.
Casebolt and the City Council plan to target structures between 23rd and 25th streets; 30th and 31st streets — and the former Green’s Bait Shop on 39th Street. Casebolt said the city has sunk a little more than $1 million into the fund. That money, along with $350,000 from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s REAP program, will pay for all the demolition.
Nitro gets its name from nitrocellulose, a key component in guncotton. Guncotton served as replacement for gunpowder, a propellant in firearms, in World War I. Nitro leans heavily on that history, with a World War I museum and several references to the conflict throughout town.
Casebolt said 100,000 people once lived in Nitro. Most of them were workers who lived in barracks or were ensconced in bungalows made just for them. They lived and worked on property that will soon see a new swimming pool and athletic facilities, on the southern side of the railroad tracks. City officials made that announcement last week.
The older structures are not only empty but little hope exists for anything locating in them, the city has decided.
“They’re dysfunctional, 10,000-square-foot buildings, some of them, with no parking,” Casebolt said.
Parking wasn’t the all-consuming luxury it is now. Two empty buildings at the corner of 25th Street and First Avenue once housed an appliance store and a doctor’s office, with no parking. Moving east, Casebolt pointed to two vacant houses on 24th Street and a building on the 24th Street corner which once housed a flower shop and a boxing gym. All five structures are coming down.
The mayor grew up in Nitro and remembers cars simply backing into traffic on First Avenue, or W.Va. 25, and fellow motorists waiting on them. No one is as keen on doing that now.
As part of the ambitious plan, 24th Street will be closed off.
“What it’s going to do is create one piece of investment property and it’ll be very attractive to people,” Casebolt said in the video. “In fact we’re already receiving inquiries about it.”
On a walking tour Thursday with the Gazette-Mail, Casebolt paced off 55 steps from the rough boundary of the property on 25th Street to the highway. That translated to approximately 165 feet.
He gestured to a new Taco Bell at 22nd Street and First Avenue. The lot is clean, and the restaurant is operating at full steam. A dilapidated building used to occupy the lot.
Despite the blighted section, which will soon be flattened, Casebolt said his town is not without prospects, citing two new buildings going up on Michigan Avenue that will hopefully house tenants.
“I’m just excited to see Nitro grow,” said Dakota Shope, 29, who lives on 25th Street and happened outside just as the mayor passed through. “This has been my home since I was born.”
Casebolt said most property owners contacted the city, asking to be purchased.
“You’re not going to get new businesses in these old buildings,” he said. “We’re going to have to create some new opportunities. What we’re showing here is our belief in our community. We believe very strongly we can grow the community or we wouldn’t be making this commitment.”
Martha Willard, 78, also known as “Susie,” isn’t as happy. Nostalgic, yes. Buildings on the 24th and 25th street corners housed Temple Drug, with doctor’s offices above it. The strip also contained dress shops she remembers fondly.
On 23rd Street, three houses slated for demolition once served as offices to three physicians, she said.
“They just improved all this not long ago,” she said of the 24th Street building facing the main drag. “Got it all painted and fixed up.”
Gradually, Willard lost her gusto for protest against the plans and continued on her way. She is a fixture in Nitro, making her daily rounds to stay in shape.
Like the town of her residence, she is trying to stay in the game.