MARTIN — At sea, sailors adrift without wind to push their sails were said to be becalmed. The city of Martin has been in such a predicament for more than a decade, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to raise the city out of the floodplain has found no wind, in the form of funding, to hoist its sails.
On Wednesday, Times staff reached out to Fifth District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Corps of Engineers project manager Ken Woodard, to discuss the current state of Martin, and when the project may get back underway.
Since the November election, the new city administration has been working to improve the city of Martin, which has lost a significant portion of its tax base due to the relocation efforts of the Corps project. The city has been left looking, as city attorney Clyde Johnson recently pointed out, “like a depopulated Third World country.”
When asked about the negative affect that the stalled Corps project is having on the city of Martin, Danielle Smoot, communications director for Rogers’ office said, “Congressman Rogers is committed to standing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete the city of Martin redevelopment effort. Over $37 million in federal funds have already been allocated to this complex downtown relocation initiative, largely thanks to Congressman Rogers’ leadership.
“Last week’s establishment of the firehouse is a first good step,” Smoot continued. “The Congressman continues to press the Corps to find the means to add City Hall and finish a very necessary and lifesaving project, joining a long list of completed flood protection initiatives in Harlan, Salyersville, Middlesboro, Barbourville and elsewhere.”
Ken Woodard says that all the plans are in place to move the project forward, but funding for the remaining phases has been scarce. The original project involved moving folks downtown to the commercial development site, then fill the area they moved from, and continue on through all four phases. To date only phase 1 has been completed.
“The project is driven by funding,” Woodward said. “We’re ready to move forward on the project when we have funding. It all hinges on the president’s budget. It’s hard for us to predict when the money is going to come through for the town of Martin project.
“I cant really put a time on it, all hinges on budget and funding. Politics change. Can’t even predict it. I’d love to get started again … make Martin into what we had planned it to be.”
Smoot says Rogers has personally seen the devastation caused by the flooding Martin has been subjected to, and that the city remains at the top of his list of priorities.
“With each major flood and devastating high water event, he has continued to advocate for real progress on fortifying the city of Martin. Within the confines of a difficult budget situation and a ban on congressionally-directed funding, Congressman Rogers continues to pursue all angles in helping the Corps complete the city of Martin flood protection project.
Smoot says that the recent sequestration is not the direct source of the delays, but she adds, “The extremely tight funding constraints and gross deficits make for difficult decisions and priorities for the Corps.”
Woodard says funding for the project began being diverted in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and agreed that it has recently been at the mercy of budget constraints.
“A lot of the cutbacks are due to the war on terror. The global war on terror. Over seas contingency operations,” said Woodard. “(But) more recently it has been tied to tight budgets.”
Ironically, Woodard says salvation for the program has come in the form of more floods. Following the May 2009 flood, the project received money to specifically target people living in the phase 3 area, to purchase homes from that area.
When asked if the federal government bore any responsibility for Martin’s continued risk of flooding due to the stalled project, Woodard says, “I wouldn’t say the federal government bears any responsibility, but the May ‘09 flood is what led to the funding.”
“We see that a lot. People tend to forget about the risks and hazard of flood areas until it happens.”
With regard to the number of abandoned and decrepit buildings in the downtown area, Woodard says the Corps has torn down all of the buildings on property they own.
“We don’t own any buildings that are abandoned,” Woodard said. “We demolished everything that was purchased. Any other buildings that are vacant, we haven’t purchased those.”
Woodard says that the order for property to be purchased was not random, but many homes were pushed down the list when they ran into issues of presenting clear titles. “A lot of times, their might be title issues that need to be cleaned up before we can proceed. We ask the landowners to fix their title issues. They might get bumped down the list while they clear that up.”
According to Woodard, the city could pursue condemnation proceedings on any other buildings in the area which have been abandoned and are posing a health and safety risk.
Mayor Sam Howell says the city has been looking into condemnation for many of the abandoned buildings in Martin.
Woodard says that the current Phase One site is open for development, except for two tracts which they are holding in reserve for the new town hall/police station and a new alternative school.
“The rest of the property, the county is working with Big Sandy Area Development District to market those tracts to put whatever they want,” Woodard said, adding that the property does have some restrictions. “There are some zoning restrictions on what can go in, some architectural guidelines as to how things are supposed to look.”
According to Woodard, the Corps of Engineers does have an overall Floyd County project, which includes the proposed floodwall project in Prestonsburg. As of yet, the Corps has not signed a project cooperation agreement with the county for the Prestonsburg project. Woodard says that the Prestonsburg project could not proceed the way Martin has, and that they would need to secure all of the funding up front. “It’s going to be a big project. You cant just build part of a flood wall. It doesn’t do you any good. It has to be all or nothing.”
The Corps has also engaged in some floodproofing projects in Martin and Pike counties, where property was purchased, or individual homes were raised out of the floodplain. Woodard says those projects have moved quickly, as they haven’t required any re-development. “We’ve done a lot there, but I can’t say we are 100 percent done.”
Corps of Engineers projects are funded primarily through the federal government, which supplies 95 percent of the funding. The Floyd County Fiscal Court is required to provide 5 percent of the matching funds, which comes primarily through grants from the Department of Local Government.