Local News

Woman advocates efforts to preserve downtown neighborhoods

SEBRING - When Charlotte Pressler accepted a job as a professor at South Florida State College, it was natural for her to buy a historic house in Sebring's downtown area because she has lived in such neighborhoods much of her life, she recalled Friday. When she first moved there, most of the 1920s-era homes were occupied on her block and it was a vibrant neighborhood. Now, an increasing number of the homes are vacant - some for sale, some under foreclosure and others that appear to be virtually abandoned. "My neighborhood is on the brink," she said, of becoming a blighted area.
Pressler is advocating that Sebring's Community Redevelopment Agency put more emphasis on preserving residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area. With some steps to make it easier for people to buy and rehabilitate the housing, Pressler said, she has little doubt that residential area revitalization can be successful. "This type of walkable neighborhood can be a real draw," she said. The CRA will consider that during an upcoming visioning session next month, said Kelly Cosgrave, chaiwoman of the CRA's board of directors. Pressler, who is a member of the city's historic preservation board, had been thinking for some time about advocating the issue, but decided it was time after an issue came up during a historic board meeting. The owner had bought a house on Lakeview as an investment during the boom and was trying to sell it, she said. He let someone stay temporarily at the residence, but that person damaged it, Pressler said. The owner sought and obtained the board's permission to make repairs. The permission was required because the house is considered a historic home. Pressler said many homes are in the same situation. Some bought structures during the boom and now can't even break even selling the structures, she said. And in some cases, a bank forecloses on the home and is unwilling to sell it without getting back what it's owed. Meanwhile, the houses deteriorate and "before long you have nothing left," she said. That made her realize that "maybe now it was time to take the next step," she said. Pressler said it makes sense for the city to seek to help preserve the neighborhoods through making it easier to rehab homes and forming historic districts. Revitalized neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown go hand-in-hand, she said. Accomplishing that, she said, requires a change in thinking. For decades, she said, Florida thrived by attracting retirees. But with the downturn in the economy, people work until they're older and remain longer where they have connections and family, she said. "I think that's a permanent change," she said. That means Sebring must come up with a different strategy, she said. The city not only needs to attract more jobs, but also younger families to its neighborhoods, she said. The city needs Realtors who specialize in historic homes, contractors who specialize in historic home rehab and rehabilitation, a lender for a federal program that provides loans for purchase rehab mortgages and tax incentives for rehabbing historic homes, she said. Pressler said the city should work to encourage preservation rather than having strict rules on what must be done. Many of the homes have their own stories. Pressler said her house was owned by a wealthy family from Ohio. But for many of the homes with grand histories, the future is up in the air. One vacant two-story house with a maid's quarters in the back "should be a showcase," for the neighborhood, she said. Instead, people walking nearby smell rot, she said. "We need to become aware of what we have so we can cherish it," she said. jmeisel@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5834