MANSFIELD -- Bart Hamilton is a financial guy, an investment guy, the guy who basically serves as Richland County's banker.
When he was elected treasurer in 2005, Hamilton already had more than a decade working in the office. He knew the job.
But the lifelong Richland County resident had no idea he would soon immerse himself into the local real estate business.
Today, as chairman of the Richland County Land Reutilization Corporation -- formed in 2013 and better known as the Richland County Land Bank -- Hamilton has become quite knowledgeable about the effort to eliminate blight, enhance neighborhoods and strengthen communities by acquiring, improving and selling vacant and/or abandoned properties.
The telling moment came several years ago during a restaurant meeting in Akron organized for all of Ohio's county treasurers by Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, featuring attorney Gus Frangos, who had written the state's land bank legislation.
"Gus spoke for about 90 minutes. When we took our first break, we just looked at each other and said, 'What the hell did we just hear? What is this?' This (land bank concept) was the craziest thing we had ever heard. We thought Jim had lost his mind," Hamilton said, laughing at the memory.
Hamilton and the other treasurers stayed and listened as the presentation continued. The lights began to flicker.
"The more you sat and thought about it and when you come back to your town, you look around and say, 'Yeah, this needs done,'" Hamilton said.
Thus began one of the most successful programs in Richland County government -- and in 45 other counties around Ohio. Since the Richland County Land Bank began in 2014, it has taken in parcels with structures or empty lots and has transferred almost 500 back to private usage with hundreds more coming online in 2018.
MICHIGAN ROOTS: The idea behind land banks actually began in Genesse County, Michigan, home of Flint, the birthplace of General Motors. With a population of 425,790, it's the fifth-biggest county in the state. When the auto industry began to bleed red and close plants, Genesse County was devastated.
"It lost all those jobs and all those people just went away," Hamilton said. "You are left with all those vacant, abandoned homes. What do you do with them? The home market was just so destroyed that you are never going to get enough people back to fill those houses. The longer they sit, the more damaged they become.
"That's the beginning of land banking."
Richland County, which suffered through its own serious economic downturn, got into the land banking business even before it formed a land bank.
In 2011, money was coming into states via settlements with banks who had violated rules and laws. Funds became available to county treasurers through the state's Attorney General's office under a program called Moving Ohio Forward to help repair and rebuild communities from the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Richland County and Mansfield received $774,000 to assist residents with mortgages, property tax delinquency problems and demolition of vacant, abandoned properties.
Hamilton worked with Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker, elected in 2011 with a campaign pledge to clean up dilapidated housing, and Donnie Mitchell, the city's community development leader. During the process, Amy Hamrick was hired by Mitchell to help administer the grant. She is now the manager of the local land bank.
"It was a countywide program, but we knew most of the issues were in the City of Mansfield," Hamilton said, pointing out the program also helped to tear down houses in Bellville, Lexington, Plymouth and Shiloh.
It also demonstrated the potential for more.
"We kept the discussion going and found we really needed a land bank," Hamilton said. "We could see the possibility of more money coming in. We got together with the county commissioners, had some discussions, and after a summer of talking about it, the land bank was formed (in 2013).
"A lot of people don't understand you can actually have an instance where real estate just doesn't have any value or almost no value. That's hard for people to wrap their heads around. But that's what we are dealing with.
"Some people say the free market will take care (of the issue). In a way, that's correct, but in a way, it's not. The market is broken in some places. It works in some communities because the (home) values are high enough a guy can go in, buy one of these houses, fix it up, put it back on the market and make a couple of bucks.
"You can't do that in some places in Mansfield right now," Hamilton said, citing the fact some properties in Mansfield are selling for $8,000 to $9,000.
It's also a program that wants the properties treated and turned quickly.
"I am spending $60,000 a year mowing grass," Hamilton said. "I would like to turn this stuff over (back into private hands). The moment we take ownership, the property also becomes tax exempt, so we collect no property tax (until it's sold). I don't want to own this stuff."
FUNDING SOURCES: The Richland County Land Bank is funded primarily through small percentages of interest and penalties assessed to local residents who fail to pay their property taxes. Grants such as Moving Ohio Forward, Neighborhood Initiative Program and the Hardest Hit Program also help. It pays about $10,000 to demolish each home.
In addition, residents in Mansfield have approved the PRIDE income tax, which includes funds for its demolitions, assisted by the Land Bank with paperwork, mailings, title searches and some of the demolition bid requests.
The local land bank is a cooperative effort with a volunteer board that includes Hamilton, two county commissioners, the mayor of Mansfield, a representative of the largest township (Madison). It also has Jeff Parton from Richland Bank and Jerry Holden, president of the Holden Agency real estate company. It meets twice each month.
The work itself also requires cooperation, including the prosecutor's office, clerk of courts, auditor's office, City of Mansfield officials and leaders in communities around the county.
"Everyone has stepped up to do the work on this," Hamilton said. "This is not just the county treasurer's office. This is one of those things where government stepped up. A lot of good people have stepped up."
The program has seen many successes, including a parcel at 728 Park Ave. East in Mansfield. The Land Bank recently gained the property through foreclosure and worked with the Ohio EPA to remove gas tanks buried on the property, clearing the way for a new business to open there, Thompson Memorials and Granite Countertops LLC.
"We have worked with the Ohio EPA in the past on asbestos issues in many of the structures we have. They were very helpful on the gas tank issue," Hamrick said.
Hamilton said it's important to stack success upon success.
"We're building a track record for the things we have done," he said. "The Ohio EPA really likes land banks. It gives them one entity to deal with (in a county). This can be complicated stuff. Instead of having to deal with 50 different people (on an issue), you have one group. We are learning how to do this stuff."
FUTURE WILL BE BUSY: The Richland County Land Bank has designs on the old, deteoriating Mansfield YMCA building on Park Avenue West.
"We are doing asbestos analysis and the property is working its way through tax foreclosure. No one is going to buy the place. It's in horrible condition. We can use (PRIDE) money to tear it down, but we have to do something after it's down. It's going to be a big project," Hamilton said.
Other large projects in the works in 2018 include a large former church on Buckingham Street in Mansfield and a former school near the old Ohio State Reformatory.
Is all of this work impacting local property tax values, in addition to returning abandoned properties to the local tax rolls?
"It's really hard to say. We watch real estate sales. The markets are going up. I want to think it's all the land bank, but obviously it's not. (But) you wouldn't believe how much an effort these run-down properties have even if you don't live on the street. If you live in a town that has those kinds of properties, it's something you can't necessarily put your finger on, but it does affect (property) values," Hamilton said.
"When we first started this thing, the properties we picked were all on the main thoroughfares. We didn't want to start back in the neighborhoods. We wanted to do the stuff people were going to drive by every day to try to get people to think differently about where they live. I think we did a lot of those things. Now we are getting into those neighborhoods."
A statewide Land Bank conference is scheduled Jan. 17 in Mansfield at the county-owned Longview Center. It's a daylong event aimed at networking, sharing success stories and discussing common challenges.
"They pick Mansfield because of the I-71 and U.S. 30 (location) and we have a free place we all can meet. Treasurers like free," Hamilton said with a smile.
Even those now involved in the real estate business.