In Tallahassee, Community Redevelopment Agencies are under siege by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who believes they are taxpayer-funded slush funds.
However, Jacksonville lawmakers believe there are safeguards put in place to protect taxpayers, and that CRAs provide necessary functions.
This week in City Council committees (Monday in Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health & Safety; Tuesday in Finance), panels are weighing the merit of restating the intent of the King/Soutel CRA and expanding the boundaries.
NCSPHS cleared the two bills on the matter with unanimous votes.
The CRAs intent is to “jumpstart housing, retail and commercial development in an underserved, but budding area in Northwest Jacksonville.”
There is, believe city planners, “significant market demand if the blighted conditions can be remedied and mitigated. The plan was themed to create new town centers at key locations with access to transit, establish minimum standards for services, strengthen existing neighborhoods and create attractive gateways that establish quality of character and identify communities,” reads the city webpage devoted to the subject.
The CRA first began a decade ago as the Soutel/Moncrief Retail Redevelopment Area Redevelopment Plan, then expanded into the KingSoutel Crossing Community Redevelopment Area. The KingSoutel Crossing Community Redevelopment Agency last year “recommended that the City Council restate and clarify its intentions regarding the governance of the redevelopment area.”
A parallel bill would expand the area also, adding 1,100 linear feet of right of way on Norfolk Avenue to the CRA.
With that clarification of CRA governance in play this week, we asked Council President Anna Brosche about CRAs — especially in light of their basic function being questioned in Tallahassee.
Brosche, a Republican, expressed confidence in the “steps we have taken locally to ensure transparency and effectiveness of the CRAs, including the governance steps of having a separate board capacity to evaluate our CRAs and their contributions to the community.”
Democratic Councilman Reggie Brown, in whose district the CRA rests, notes that efforts to program the money are hamstrung by the combination of a state-imposed requirement to use the money within three years and the fact that money isn’t coming into the CRA very quickly due to a lack of new businesses.
Wishlist items like sewer lines on U.S. 1 have to be deferred, Brown said, in favor of more manageable asks like crosswalks and traffic signals.
The idea of a “slush fund” strikes Brown as ridiculous in that context; what can be afforded are infrastructure items that fit into an approximately $500,000 influx per year.
The Office of Economic Development augments those claims.
“Every CRA evolves at its own pace. The Kings Soutel CRA is progressing as the economy of the area has progressed (slowly). This is based on private capital investments within the boundary. The CRA Plan created in 2008 was developed to build intersection gateways hoping to attract retail and commercial redevelopment within the boundary. Due to a slow evolving TIF, it has taken a few years to accumulate enough revenue to implement plan projects,” the OED asserted.
“The KingSoutel Crossing CRA was established just prior to the recession when the market was at an all-time high. With a 2008 base year set before the market crash, it was upside down the first couple of years with little to no return in the early years. The funding has accrued at a very slow pace over the past seven years due to the economy and lack of private capital investment. The funds have been set aside over time and placed within a separate account. The Councilman has used them to improve the recreational opportunities within the CRA hoping to spur activity. The updated plan provides much more opportunity within the CRA boundary,” the OED added.
CRAs are part of Jacksonville’s larger strategy, though not without internal debate on particulars.
In 2017, the Jacksonville International Airport CRA was proposed for sunset in 2019 by the advisory board, with remaining funds to be swept into the general fund.
That decision was fought by the district’s councilman, Democrat Reggie Gaffney.
Gaffney noted that there was a lot of work to be done in the area, including infrastructure and drainage improvements.
And he had powerful allies.
Republican Councilman Aaron Bowman, the current council vp who handles business recruitment for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, contended that infrastructure improvement is consistent with the goals of the CRA.
“My reading of the rules and regulations,” Bowman said, “is we absolutely have the right to do that … I think we’ve left a lot of stuff off the table that we could’ve done.”
In a city like Jacksonville, where standards of living are often radically different from neighborhood to neighborhood, a community redevelopment area has a very specific function that council members seek to reaffirm.
While that puts council Republicans at odds with Corcoran conservatives in the Florida House, that’s a risk they are willing to run.