Knocking down dilapidated structures isn’t what it used to be.
Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when Lawrence Baker, a 31-year veteran of the demolition game, was just starting at the city of Beaumont, there wasn’t much in the way of regulations when it came to tearing down houses and commercial buildings.
“There weren’t regulations for abatements such as asbestos back then, and that’s driven the costs up, but the added regulations are a good thing,” said Baker, who handles all the demolition projects for the city of Port Arthur after 17 years with Beaumont.
And Mother Nature wasn’t pounding the Gulf Coast as often back then as she has in the last decade, either. “We didn’t have any hurricanes back then. That’s one of the biggest differences,” Baker said of the damage that has been done to vacant structures and commercial buildings throughout Port Arthur and Jefferson County as a whole.But for Baker and Danny Daniels, building official with the city of Beaumont, as well as those associated with the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission, the actual amount of work that goes into securing funds to proceed with the area’s much needed demolition is as numbing to the mind as the ragged structures are appealing to the eye.
The paperwork involved is itself a process, and the rules of the fundraising game can change as often as if you’re playing against an 8-year-old.“It’s not uncommon for the rules to change in the middle of the game,” said Shaun Davis, executive director of the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission. “It can be very challenging.”
In many cases, the structures needing attention have been abandoned and damaged by storms, creating a health and safety hazard in their respective neighborhoods. And those health and safety hazards are often havens for transients and the homeless who might have drug and alcohol problems, thus inviting nefarious activity to the neighborhood.
“People in Port Arthur have had it up to here waiting for these houses to be removed in their neighborhoods,” said Baker, raising his right arm outstretched above his head. “And that’s the frustrating thing for me, trying to explain to people that we’re trying to get this done as quickly as possible.”
In an era of budget cuts affecting every governmental body, large or small, the money allotted to demolition is slotted somewhere between slim and none, and none usually wins the day. So for Beaumont and Port Arthur, the reliance on the federal government is absolutely necessary. In the past, Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG money, has been used, and still is used when available, to fund demolitions. The CDBG program is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and has a wide range of applications, including disaster recovery and neighborhood stabilization, among others.
In the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Ike, other federal funds have become available, and currently, Beaumont and Port Arthur are waiting for money to be released from the feds so each city can begin tearing down roughly 700 dilapidated residential structures.
Of course, the waiting game has been going on since 2009 when the money was first awarded to the area. And while it’s not a “waiting game” per se, because the money is available, there are a number of environmental checks and balances that must be completed first before money can start flowing and the bulldozers can start dozing.
“It’s the process they’re going through now,” said Mike Foster, housing manager for the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission, of what is being done to get the money. “For residential, there are two situations — people that are still in the house, and then there are those homes that are dilapidated structures, and taking care of the environmental clearances and other programmatic details to demolish those homes.”
Part of that environmental process, and Foster said this is one of the final hurdles before money should start being dispersed, is that this area is scrutinized more when it comes to demolition because of the proximity to petrochemical plants. HUD representatives in Washington D.C. have to analyze maps from this area and give the clearance to go ahead with the demolition, and that’s what the SETRPC is waiting for, and then the demolition can begin.
While Beaumont and Port Arthur wait for the clearance, Beaumont has gone ahead and started demolishing some of the 400 or so residential structures it has thanks to “a little bit of money from the city’s general fund,” according to Daniels.
Port Arthur it will begin the process of demolishing 76 dilapidated commercial structures throughout the city thanks to $2 million in grant money it received from the Texas Department of Rural Affairs. Baker said the pre-bids for the demolition projects have begun, and he expects the first 14 structures to be taken down starting in late March or early April, and the process will continue throughout the year.
Baker said the demolition of the commercial structures downtown and along major thoroughfares and in spots throughout Port Arthur is just another way the city is trying to clean up and present a better image to both residents and people passing through.
“We may not have all the funding we need, but we’re going to take what we do have and use it in the best way possible to make this area better for the people of Port Arthur in the long run,” Baker said.