Saturday, April 12, 2008

CRA Commercial Enhancement/Facade Grant Program

This annual program funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) appeared on their last Tuesday night's agenda. You can see the agenda below and related back-up material. There were exhibits with the actual packets, but those exhibits (probably plans and diagrams of the proposed improvements, along with cost estimates) weren't included in the on-line back-up.

I have been to CRA meetings in years previous where there were many applicants for this grant money. It is designed to encouraged new and existing businesses to improve the exterior of the properties. Of course, these properties have to lie within the CRA district. To be done so that additional future money is leveraged (meaning that this grant money should be part of other private money in the project), the project has to be one that takes place in the future. One of the four applicants for this year's program (according to the back-up material) was looking for grant money to pay for an already completed project. Rightly, the CRA staff rejected consideration of that application.

It's interesting to note that the CRA budgeted a total of $175,000 for this program for this fiscal year (2007/2008). The total amount requested by the three applicants was around $70,000. $25,000 is the maximum grant. So, according to the current CRA budget, they could have approved 7 or more separate projects depending on whether all had asked for the maximum amount. Acting Tuesday, the CRA chose to grant money to only one of the projects - The one put forward by Paradiso Restaurant on Lucerne Avenue. The vote was 4-0 (there are currently three vacancies on the seven member board) to approve that request. The same 4-0 vote turned down the other two requests.

As a result, there is additional money left in the budget that could fund other projects, perhaps with a slightly different focus or target. This is suggested at the end of the back-up memorandum.

Now, let's talk a little about the projects. This may surprise you, but had I been on the board I would have wanted the money to go to the two projects that were turned down - Rotelli's and the Gallo building, and not to Paradiso.

Regarding Rotelli's, when you walk or drive by their eastern wall along K Street, check out the condition of the marble fascia material. This was a big issue when Darrin Engle was here and, on an advisory basis, he told the Planning and Zoning Historic Resource Preservation Board that Rotelli's had wanted to change it to a more modern material since they thought the existing looked dog-earred and second rate. Something that in hindsight I agree with, but the board at the time chose to support Darrin's direction. to preserve the existing facade as it was a "book-matched marble veneer that was typical of the period that the building was built. The "honing" of the fascia that Darrin suggested never took place, along with the recommended replacement of damaged pieces.

Apparently, now they were looking at porcelain tiles over the existing material and that might have significantly improved the appearance of their facade, at a critical intersection in our downtown. However, there was a technicality in that CRA money from the same program was used in the original work from only two years ago. The CRA has a limit that the same properties cannot be funded within a three year period. If this is the case, this project shouldn't have even been considered and should have been treated similarly to the application that was discarded without coming to the board. I do think that there was justification for waiving that parameter in this case. But the decision has been made to deny funding.

With the Gallo Building and property, perhaps one of the more "homely" buildings in the City (I'll try to remember to get a picture when I am out and about), I think there was great justification in allocating grant money to this project. This is especially true considering the substantial sums that are about to be invested in our city in the form of the Hammon Park project. But that project went unfunded.

There are those that continue to moan and complain about the existence of the CRA and see it as a wasteful program. These people point to the granting of $25,000 to Paradiso as an example of a project that probably didn't need the help, as it is one of the more expensive and successful restaurants within our downtown. I am not sure how needy this project was and that weighs heavily in my opinion. Let's hope that what they are proposing is a worthy addition to the fabric of our downtown and that the money did indeed induce other investment capital.

CRA's around the state of Florida and the nation play a key role in the upgrading of public infrastructure and the inducement of private investment. This is something that is critically needed in our community. They are also an independent board, with the City Commission appointing individual members. After the stew related to the Pugh property (the plug has been officially pulled, by the way), there needs to be more conversation between the City Commission and the CRA in the future. Let's hope we learned from this ordeal and that we can move on to more productive pursuits.