Garbage-strewn properties, boarded-up windows, collapsing buildings and even the long-discarded commode were the focus of a rolling Cumberland City Council meeting which toured downtown in search of possible nuisance ordinance violations on Wednesday.
"It's got to go," said councilman Don Disney, looking at a gutted building on Main Street that sported blue tarp for windows. "There isn't anything inside of it except walls."
Joe Wayne Creech, identified as the property owner, said he would wait until contacted to respond to the council's concerns.
"It's just a lack of pride," said Mayor Jeff Harrison, standing among several boarded-up buildings which he says violate city ordinances. "A lot of these areas create public health problems. Nobody wants to come in and look at that. This is part of sprucing our town up so that we can sell it to tourists."
Saying it's time to clean a city littered with garbage and dilapidated buildings suffering from years of neglect, council members helped Harrison compile a list of properties in need of cleaning or condemnation.
"We're not going to be heavy-handed," said Harrison. "We're going to give people the opportunity to work with the city to get their properties cleaned up. That's what we're interested in. We're not interested in causing problems or creating undue burdens. But we're saying there are certain standards you need to abide by as a property owner.
"Because when you neglect your property, you harm your fellow property owners by lowering the property values and harming our chances of developing tourism. It's just a matter of pride."
Property holders with nuisance violations can expect to receive "diplomatic" letters detailing the council's concerns. Those who are not willing to address the problem could face fines which would mount on a per-day, per-violation basis, said Harrison.
Some hazards are obvious, said the mayor, like rubble from a burned house which is yet to be removed from a residential area after over two years. Other violations, such as a wooden structure extending from the Hoagie Shop onto a city sidewalk, were committed without regard for ordinances, he said.
Years ago, as a councilman, Harrison gave permission to use the sidewalk, said Charlotte Rhodes, operator of the sandwich shop.
Harrison said he has no memory of such a statement.
"It's a city sidewalk," he said. "That's blatantly obvious and anyone knows that you can't build a structure on top of a city sidewalk. It's ridiculous."
"I don't want him bothering me," said Rhodes. "I pay my bills. I try to keep this place clean."
The drive around town revealed what residents have gotten used to seeing over the course of years:
n fields strewn with garbage and overgrown with weeds adjacent to active businesses;
n structurally unsafe homes and businesses, which sit abandoned;
n rusted-out cars littering the municipal landscape;
n garbage-infested creek banks.
"A lot of it is absentee property owners; some of them don't have the funds to put into it because of the economic situation, and some of them just don't care," said Harrison, who promised to tackle the issue equitably.
Evaluating the state of their town prompted nostalgia from some of the council.
"When we were kids, you still had a thriving downtown," said councilman Greg Collier. "We could still walk and spend hours from one end to the other going to eat at the drug store, going to small five-and-dime shops. There was a downtown life."
After decades of economic troubles, things have changed in Cumberland.
"We want folks to start thinking that we all have a stake in this," said Collier. "It's to the benefit of all of us to do as much as we can."
Harrison admitted it would be hard to change the minds of many entrenched in their ways.
"This is a nuisance to the public and it has to be dealt with," he said. "People are sick and tired of this town being in the shape it is."