Downtown Marion has a number of buildings with empty upper floors that could be turned into apartments. City officials hope to turn these empty upper levels into homes through a new initiative called Moving Up in Marion. This photograph, taken last year, shows a long hallway on the upper floor of the Blanton building. Real estate agent Mike Rabb and a McDowell News reporter counted around 20 rooms in the upper level. They could be used as offices or apartments. This section is available for lease. It covers a total of 6,176 square feet.

The city of Marion will launch a new program aimed at turning empty upper floors in downtown buildings into places for people to live.

The initiative, called Moving Up in Marion, will identify opportunities to increase the number of residences on the upper-floors of multi-story buildings in downtown Marion. The Marion City Council approved this new effort at their regular meeting on Tuesday.

For many years, the upper floors of various downtown buildings have stood empty. Just two examples of this include the Blanton building on South Main and the three-story building at the corner of South Main and Railroad streets. Both of them have vast amounts of space in their upstairs which could be turned into apartments.

But Marion has had trouble getting people interested in living in those upper-level floors.

“We can’t even get people to think about it,” said City Manager Bob Boyette.

On the other hand, living in the upper floors of downtown buildings has become popular in other nearby cities. It is especially attractive to younger folks who want to be close to the downtown scene and don’t have a problem with climbing stairs.

Marion Business Association Director Freddie Killough heard about an initiative that was used in Lenoir. It is called Moving Up Lenoir to the Second Floor. She thought it should be tried here.

“It seems to be working in Lenoir,” said Boyette.

Under Moving Up in Marion, there would be three phases. The city’s façade grant program would be revised to include architectural consulting services. A licensed architect would provide consulting services for adapting these upper floors into apartments. The program would be launched with presentations that help property owners, real estate professionals, developers and others to better understand rehabilitation requirements and resources that are available to them.

In phase two, a walk-through of the building would be held with the property owner, the architect, city officials, Killough and an administrative assistant. The architect will submit a summary and cost estimate for schematic plans/renderings for that building according to the ideas generated during the walk-through.

In phase three, the property owner may proceed with the schematic design for renovation of the building and the cost for the design work could be funded through the revised façade grant program. “Property owner can explore other tax credits, grants and financing with a much clearer idea of the scope of work to rehabilitate their building(s) for upper floor residential and the potential rate of return based the number and size of units developed,” reads a brochure.

“There is a desperate need for rental income, rental properties in McDowell County,” said Killough. “We think this will gain leverage to fill buildings that have been underutilized.”

After hearing from Killough and Boyette, council approved revising the façade grant program to allow for this new initiative. However, Councilman Everette Clark said he’s not been able to read this proposal yet. He chose to abstain from voting.

“I’d just like to be familiar with what I’m voting on,” said Clark.

In other business, the City Council approved a lease with Westmoreland Funeral Home for the new parking lot on South Main Street, which will be built on the former site of the Heilig-Meyers building and the Harold Caviness law office.

Under the agreement, the new parking lot will be used for public parking except when funeral services and visitations are taking place at Westmoreland Funeral Home, in which case it will be reserved for funeral home use only.

The funeral home will pay for design, engineering, construction, on-site drainage and paving. The city will pay for the installation of curbing, landscaping, decorative lighting and signage and a decorative guardrail, if required.

“I just appreciate the chance to make South Main Street look better,” said Jim Gibson, owner of Westmoreland Funeral Home.

Councilman Don Ramsey asked to be excused from voting on this matter because of the work he’s done for Gibson. The agreement was passed by council.

In other business, the Marion City Council:

• Formally approved the six projects for downtown revitalization that will be submitted to the N.C. Department of Commerce for more than $94,000 in grant money. These projects are using $10,000 for downtown business grants, restrooms at the Tailgate Market, restrooms and a shelter at the gazebo park on North Main, overall parking and sidewalk improvements for the downtown, façade improvements for the backs of buildings on West Henderson Street and railroad bank improvements between Main Street and the Tailgate Market.

• Heard an update from Public Works Director Brant Sikes about Burgin Street. The storm drain underneath the entire length of Burgin Street has to be replaced and a water line is in need of replacement too. The street is closed to through traffic until they can be replaced. Sikes said the estimated cost of repairs is $56,372. That is mostly for materials and the work will be done by city crews. Boyette said work will begin soon so the street can be reopened.

• Adopted the revised wellness incentive policy.

• Was informed that the N.C. Department of Commerce approved a $25,000 building reuse grant for Fat Boys Burritos. This new eatery on the five lane will employ five people and will be located in the vacant building next to Smokey Que’s. Fat Boys Burritos is owned by Caleb Parker, who also owns Smokey Que’s. He hopes to have it open by Nov. 1. Parker will invest at least $25,000 in addition to the state money, in the building renovations.

• Was informed Auto Tech Collision Center is wrapping up the use of its $40,000 building reuse grant. Auto Tech is renovating the old Marion Equipment building on Rutherford Road, will add four full-time jobs and is investing at least $40,000, in addition to the state money, in the building renovation.

• Heard an update on the replacement of the black-and-white cutout photographs inside the Community Building. Boyette said he’s talked to five photographers who are interested in submitting their work to hang on the walls. Clark said he would like to see a museum established in downtown Marion to showcase local history. He said he would also like to see a flag for Marion. “Most cities have a flag,” he said.