- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

MOUNDS, Ill. (AP) - Oh, what Rita Flummer could do with the triad of houses in the 600 block of North Blanche Street in the city of Mounds.

It probably wouldn’t be pretty, and it most definitely wouldn’t be nice.

Suffice it to say that if it was in her power, the three unoccupied houses with brush growing in front and trees growing between them would be the first buildings she’d tear down in the city.

Ever since she moved to the city in the 1980s, those three, side-by-side shotgun-style houses have lain vacant, an early and uninviting eyesore to visitors and residents alike driving along Old U.S. 51 into and out of the city. Flummer would like the city to buy them from their owner, but she said the $17,000 asking price is too high for the city to afford.

If city entrances speak of those cities, those houses forecast what’s to come.

They speak of a city that has fallen on hard times, a city where a third of its residential and commercial properties are vacant, dilapidated or abandoned, in a city that has had a lack of code enforcement.

The problem is one Flummer inherited when she joined the city administration as mayor in 2013. Her predecessor, Waymon Butler Jr., said he and his administration secured funding to tear down about 40 to 50 buildings during the years he was in office from 2005 to 2013.

“It was just let go for so long,” she said. “It’s not going to get accomplished overnight either.”

Mounds once had a hotel, several grocery stores, pharmacies, a gas station and car repair shops. As time went on, owners died or moved away and no one stepped in to fill the void that grew, bit by bit. A few small shops supply goods and a sprinkling of jobs, not all of which belong to local residents. One of the region’s largest employers, the Oil-Dri Corporation of America, employs about 10 people, Flummer said.

As jobs went away, so did the money that would have circulated within a city.

And, she added, it’s not as if all the properties that look disheveled and abandoned actually are. Some of the vacant properties are owned by people who actually pay their property taxes, but do not perform regular maintenance and upkeep. The city has no legal authority to claim those properties if the taxes are paid, Flummer said.

“We have tried to contact some of them - well, most of them - and some we have responses from and some we do not,” Flummer said.

A few years ago, about one-fourth of the city’s housing was unoccupied - the 2010 census reported that the city had 433 housing units, 337 of which were occupied.

The house with the red brick facade right across from the trio that causes Flummer such angst is also empty: Its front door is ajar, a window is boarded up and a garbage can rests on one side of the house.

A few blocks away, a two-block strip of Third Street is populated by house after house with boarded-up windows, broken window glass or a yard overgrown with brush and weeds.

At the end of that block, across the street on the corner is another house, part of whose back side and roof are ragged and ripped open.

The condition of these properties is known to be magnet for crimes, such as vagrancy or arson, Flummer said.

The city is aware of this problem, Flummer said, and is beginning to address it by starting to enforce city codes.

“I’m living here, and I want it to get better,” Flummer said, “and that’s the reason I ran for mayor.”

As she looks for outside sources of funding and call on her state and federal representatives for support, she’s also trying to encourage residents to do their part to keep their properties well-maintained. City representatives recently approached some code offenders and are working with them to resolve light and non-compliance issues.

“If it’s out there, I’m looking for it,” she said. “I don’t want to start a project that I can’t finish.”

A solution, though, simple, is not that readily fixable.

Money would fix a lot of the problems, but the city does not have any to tear down the buildings at a cost of about $3,500 to $4,000 per property.

Until funding is found and comes through for some of this work, Flummer is determined that the city will move into a new arena and start touting what it does have for businesses and individuals considering moving there.

She is focusing on the positives, noting that the city of Mounds recently opened a Head Start center in one of the buildings that it owns.

She said the city is used to getting short-changed with state funding, and as a result, has its own supply of emergency preparedness items for dealing with emergencies brought on by floods and other disasters. There are several large Humvees, one, she points out, that get lots of use when the city uses it to move large logs. There is also a rather innocuous-looking army-fatigue painted trailer that unfolds into a kitchen, she noted.

Flummer said she and the police chief have talked about creating a farmers’ market on Front Street, which is fairly devoid of buildings. They envision it occupying a cleared space near the train tracks.

High on her list of priorities is opening up some sort of youth center for local teens, whom she and others in the city have said don’t have a recreational outlet.

“It’s got to have a starting point,” she said. “It hasn’t started.”

But it will, she said.

“It needs to be done.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, http://bit.ly/1TQkgCd

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com

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