Community Redevelopment Agency. Horrible title (Bureaucracy. Yawn.).
Fabulous job description.
These entities are charged with, among other things: beautifying blighted areas; organizing and hosting community events; encouraging economic activity; pushing social agendas such as advocating for affordable housing or human services; and coming up with creative ways of paying for it all—tax increment financing, tax credits, grants and the like.
Locally, CRAs have helped in the creation of new apartments, food truck parks, attractions and small businesses, often luring them to otherwise neglected neighborhoods.
That’s when they’re run well, of course. There has been many a CRA regionally and around the country that’s fallen subject to scrutiny or sparked controversy, usually over financial matters—in particular, the use of tax increment financing (TIF) to fund improvement projects. TIF is a means of financing an improvement project by borrowing against the tax revenue that the completed project is expected to generate. Lack of oversight, however, has landed some of the state’s 220 CRAs in hot water. In 2016, a Miami-Dade grand jury report suggested that region’s CRA was a fund for elected officials’ “pet projects.” House Speaker Richard Corcoran listed a litany of abuses in a 2017 op-ed and in 2018, the state Legislature considered a bill that would phase out existing CRAs and require legislative approval for new ones. It died in committee. Additional legislature has been filed this year.
Run well, however, a CRA can spur meaningful change. Developers, government officials and CRA leaders say success requires visionary, yet realistic thinking, a lean staff, oversight through a citizens’ advisory board, and broad understanding of budgeting, land use and land planning.
“CRAs have different degrees of effectiveness, depending on where they are and who is involved with them, who is leading them,” says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who founded DPZ, a town planning and architecture firm, with Andrés Duany in 1980. DPZ has served as a consultant on redevelopment projects in Naples, downtown Fort Myers, and currently, in Bonita Springs. “We have had some, I would say, very effective ones in South Florida. But we hear both good things and bad things about them.”
Who is behind Southwest Florida’s CRAs? What are they up to? And how have these organizations transformed parts of the region? Gulfshore Business set off to find out.
CRAs vary in structure, but their oversight rests locally, as they are funded through local taxes. The governing board can include government officials and/or citizen appointees. In the cities of Fort Myers and Naples, for example, city councilors serve as their respective CRA governing boards and are assisted by advisory groups.
“CRAs work best with very strong communication between the CRA, the city, the business community and the citizens of the community,” says Don Paight, who founded Fort Myers’ CRA in 1988 (it is now run by Michele Hylton-Terry). “Without a buy-in by all parties, it is difficult to accomplish the goals established by those groups.”
During his tenure, Paight, now an associate with CRE Consultants, ushered in more than $1 billion in public and private investment to transform downtown into what is today known as the “River District.”
In Naples, signature CRA projects include the revitalization of Fifth Avenue South as Naples’ “Main Street,” says City Council member Ellen Seigel, who chairs the Naples CRA, founded in 1994.
The $10 mil lion Baker Park, expected to open in March, received $1 million in CRA funds to create the city’s biggest park. CRA projects can include basic infrastructure enhancements such as stormwater improvement projects, bike lanes, sidewalks and lighting—the kinds of benefits that spur private development. An example of that is the 212-unit residential project on the former Naples Daily News site following CRA-led improvements to the Central Avenue corridor. “A city would not have the resources to undertake the particular projects that the CRA ends up being able to accomplish. Now, you could argue that a city like Naples has unlimited resources, but we really don’t,” Seigel says. “Unfortunately, some of the necessary projects that could only be done because we have a CRA are being done because of this funding mechanism.”
Even with the CRA investments and lure of financial assistance, some developers are still reluctant to take a risk in an underserved area, says investor Joseph Bonora, who has been involved with CRA- backed projects in Fort Myers.
Where some might see added governmental agency involvement and increased red tape, he sees the opposite. “With the CRAs, they’re not really another layer of government you
have to deal with, more so a layer of government that’s going to help you with the other layers,” says Bonora, founder and managing partner of Catalyst Asset Management.
His CityWalk project planned for downtown won approval for a tax rebate not to exceed $5.5 million over 10 years, according to the Fort Myers CRA. Another project, a 282-unit apartment complex at an estimated value of $50 million, is the first to use the CRA’s stormwater treatment credits. The apart- ments are in the 18-acre Grand Central development on Cleveland Avenue, which includes Southwest Florida’s first Krispy Kreme.
Collaboration is key, says Michele Hylton-Terry, who was named executive director of the Fort Myers CRA in 2018. In Collier County, Hearing Examiner Mark Strain says CRAs usher in neighborhood involvement, and he’s seeing efforts by the Bayshore Gateway Triangle CRA, for example, generate inter- est from developers in that area.
“You’re working hands-on with the people in the community that’s being affected. They’re actually able to weigh in on government actions that occur in their community more directly,” Strain says. “I like working with them. You get a better feel for what the community is looking for.”
Here’s a sampling of Southwest Florida CRAs and how they work.
A view toward the Fort Myers River District. which underwent extensive improvements under the guidance of the Fort Myers CRA.
Fort Myers CRA
ABOUT: The Fort Myers CRA uses incentives, including tax increment rebates, land- scape and facade grants, a job and talent attraction program, and a stormwater credit program, to partner with businesses in downtown’s River District, the Martin Luther King Jr. corridor and Cleveland Avenue.
RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Regional Collaboratory & Tech Hub in the former railroad depot in partnership with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and City of Fort Myers (opened in October 2018); U.S. 41 corridor medians/under the Colonial Bridge overpass landscaping project (completed in December 2018); Campo Felice, a 323-unit senior independent living community (opened in September 2017) with a 100-bed assisted living area, a 50-bed memory care area and 40,000-square-foot medical office building planned for Phase II. It also has updated and completed a 2018 Downtown Plan, 2018 MLK Expansion and Plan Update, and Midtown Vision Plan. Three testimonial videos won the 2018 Roy F. Kenzie Award for Promotion from the Florida Redevelopment Association.
CURRENT AND UPCOMING PROJECTS: CityWalk with 300 residential apartments, a 128-room SpringHill Suites, and 5,000-10,000 square feet of retail/commercial space; $91 million Luminary Hotel & Co. project by Mainsail Lodging & Development (scheduled for early 2020); River District Apartments, a 270-unit upscale project at First and Fowler streets; restoration of McCollum Hall by McCollum Redevelopment Associates (since 2008, the CRA has invested $1.8 million of tax increment funds into the purchase and restoration of the historic building).
ABOUT: A guiding principal of the Naples CRA is that the primary responsibility for redevelopment lies with the private sector; the CRA and the City of Naples provide supportive services, primarily infra- structure improvements, to spur private development, says Chair Ellen Seigel. Roger Reinke, the City of Naples assistant manager, serves as the CRA administrator.
RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Eighth Street improvements (Central Avenue to Fifth Avenue South); Fifth Avenue South parking garages; 10th Street improvements; River Park pool; Central
Avenue from Goodlette-Frank Road to Eighth Street South; and Third Avenue South from Goodlette-Frank Road to Eighth Street South; community policing and special landscaping.
CURRENT AND UPCOMING PROJECTS: Eighth Street Improvements (Seventh Avenue North to Central Avenue), which include intersection updates and sidewalks.
Cape Coral Community Redevelopment Agency—South Cape
ABOUT: The CRA promotes redevelopment in South Cape and assists in the development and improvement of infrastructure, capital projects and public amenities. A priority is to work closely with South Cape businesses to create a better business environment and to support their success, it says. Five community members serve as the agency’s board of commissioners, and the city manager serves as the executive director.
RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS: $13 million SE 47th Terrace Streetscape Project with curbing, decorative lighting, Wi-Fi, landscaping, streetscape furniture and decorative pavers, and updates to water, wastewater, irrigation and stormwater lines; improvements to two city-owned parking lots; landscaping and lighting improvements within the median of Cape Coral Parkway East between Del Prado Boulevard and Coronado Parkway.
CURRENT AND UPCOMING PROJECTS: Second phase to S.E. 47th Terrace Streetscape Project (additional improvements to parking lots and extending streetscape project from 15th Avenue to Del Prado Boulevard); mixed-use Bimini Basin project south of Cape Coral Parkway (city partnership with RMA Real Estate Services to find a mixed-use developer).
All Aboard: Celebration Park within the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle CRA in East Naples features food trucks and boat access.
Collier County Community Redevelopment Agency
ABOUT: The Collier County CRA, created in 2000, includes the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle CRA and Immokalee CRA. The Board of County Commissioners serves
as the CRA executive board; its advisory board consists of residents and business owners. “The main goal is to try to develop those partnerships that will help you leverage what investments you can do as the CRA and what the private sec-
tor can do from their investment, and then meet the goals of the community,” says Debrah Forester, CRA director and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. The Bayshore CRA also man- ages the Bayshore Beautification Municipal Taxing Service Unit (MTSU) and Haldeman Creek MTSU, and the Immokalee CRA manages the Immokalee Beautification and Lighting MTSU.
RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Phase one of a fire suppression program using a $350,000 Community Development Block Grant; opening of Celebration Park with food trucks; newcomers such as Ankrolab Brewing Co.
CURRENT AND UPCOMING PROJECTS: Updating the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle redevelopment plan and the section on Immokalee in the county’s Growth Management Plan. “Both of the CRAs in Collier County have been doing some intensive planning to look at goals and laying out strategies for the future,” Forester says. Also, streetscape improvements and a roundabout at the corner of Thomasson and Bayshore drives, where Mattamy Homes is building Arborteum with townhomes starting in the low $300,000s across from Naples Botanical Garden.