A vacant property isn't just an eyesore. It can be a haven for prostitutes or drug dealers, a magnet for arsonists or an accident waiting to happen for a group of curious children. Such a property can also be an expense for the government agency that's responsible for barricading entrances and cutting the grass when the owner won't.

Not to mention the fact that a concentration of empty, dilapidated buildings can sabotage economic development, offering businesses the perfect incentive to locate elsewhere.

At one end of the spectrum, some cities have developed sophisticated technology systems for cataloging and tracking vacant properties, giving these municipalities the information they need to manage such properties. At the other end, some cities' methods are a bit more archaic.

"Some cities still have their property information on index cards," said Jennifer Leonard, director of the National Vacant Properties Campaign (NVPC) at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

Paper property records don't get updated often, and when they do, not everyone gets the news. An employee in a property disposition department looking for the owner of an empty four-family building, for example, might not know that a code enforcement officer has already tracked that property owner down, Leonard said.

"Unless you can integrate all that information in one place and one piece, where everyone has access to updated information," she said, "it's not very useful."

This year, 10 communities received help in managing data on their vacant properties, thanks to the 2006 National Vacant and Abandoned Properties Grant Program, which is co-sponsored by the NVPC, GIS software developer ESRI and GPS technology developer, Magellan. The program provides hardware and software to communities to help develop applications for managing vacant properties.

Each winner received one or more handheld GPS units from Magellan, and ESRI's ArcPad software for mobile GIS and field mapping applications, plus online training in the technology.

The grant is meant to shine a light on the connection between community planning and economic development, and publicize the NVPC.

"We thought that putting together a mobile GIS grant program would be a really good way not only to support the work [NVPC] is doing with many communities and trade associations, but also to promote the upcoming [NVPC] conference," said Milton Ospina, ESRI's economic development and industry manager.

The NVPC will hold its first national conference this spring, and grant recipients are invited to attend and present their applications.

Data Fuels Strategies

The grant program is one example of the kind of technical assistance the NVPC provides to communities so they can organize their vacant and abandoned property inventories. Once they do, the communities can develop strategies for converting once-vacated real estate into productive uses.

For instance, Leonard said, Baltimore plans to acquire at least 5,000 vacant properties and transfer them to private developers -- both for-profit and nonprofit.

With ArcPad running on the Magellan GPS unit, a field worker standing near a building can capture the site's geographic coordinates, and then use a customized onscreen form to record information about it.

"Then you can link it up to a photograph or other GIS records," Ospina said.

Originally 67 communities applied to the grant program, outlining how they would use the technology.

"They have vacant properties that they need not only to identify," Ospina said, "but catalog and inventory and find a way to put them back to proper use."

Applications came from cities with as many as 350,000 residents and as few as 7,000, and from several regional planning agencies, Ospina said. Although the program was promoted mainly to planning and economic development departments, submissions also came from redevelopment, public works, engineering and environment management departments, and mayors' offices, he said.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer