CRA Advisory Board meets; frustrations mount

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter-News Analyst

CRA Advisory Board members at Monday night meeting
Kelly Gibson, Senior Planner far right

On Monday, April 1, 2013, the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Advisory Board (CRAAB) for the city of Fernandina Beach met to consider the existing CRA plan and to discuss potential updates.  Kelly Gibson, the city’s senior planner who staffs this committee, asked members to review the plan matrix, a comprehensive spreadsheet that lists plan actions and their current status, to determine if the committee wished to recommend changes to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC).  Gibson reminded members that any changes to the plan would need to be approved by FBCC resolution.

CRAAB member Debra Stephenson suggested that the problem that needs to be solved first is educating the FBCC on the value and benefits of the CRA.  To that end, she contacted Carol Westmoreland of the Florida Redevelopment Association (Redevelopment.net) for assistance.   Westmoreland, who is scheduled to conduct a CRA training session in Jacksonville on June 18, expressed a willingness to visit Fernandina Beach to conduct a special training session for the FBCC and the CRAAB.

Mike Zaffaroni, CRAAB chair, voiced strong support for this idea, asking that Gibson try to arrange such a session as soon as possible.  “Otherwise,” he said, “we [the CRAAB] are just spinning our wheels.”

CRAAB members expressed frustration with the FBCC’s failure to act twice on recommendations to strengthen the CRA because of their needs for “more information.”  Yet to date commissioners have not specified exactly what kinds of information they need to be able to move forward.  While some commissioners claim that nothing has been done since the CRA was established in 2005, the plan matrix clearly indicates that lots of work has been done in preparation for development.  City Commissioner Arlene Filkoff, the FBCC liaison to the CRAAB, said, “The Commission needs to recognize that accomplishments to date are the building blocks for the future.”  Zaffaroni added, “Just because there have not been a lot of tangible results doesn’t mean we aren’t on our road to success.”

The consensus of the board was that any additional work by the CRAAB to refine or reprioritize actions hinges upon the FBCC’s understanding of the CRA and its importance for economic development.  At this point it is not clear that the FBCC supports the CRA in principle, much less the actions recommended by the CRAAB.

Even within the CRAAB differences of opinion exist with respect to priorities.  Stephenson believes that safety is priority one, while member Lou Goldman believes that getting the first developer working on a project should be first priority.  Goldman expressed frustration that the city has yet to get back to the one developer who expressed interest earlier this year in working with the city on a project that has already been permitted.  Goldman believes that getting money into the CRA’s coffers can be accelerated by bringing in private development.  Those funds can be used then to improve the public portions of the CRA lands.

Member Marla McDaniel referenced the concern expressed by at least one FBCC member that favored treatment should not be given to individual developers.  Member Andy Curtin said that actions need to be considered as to whether they are being taken in the city’s interest or in the interest of a developer.  Filkoff opined that in the minds of some commissioners, the Front Street infrastructure work is not necessary except for the benefit of one developer when in fact the infrastructure in that area has been neglected for years.

Goldman raised the need for the waterfront park, which he believes speaks to quality of life issues in the city.  Waiting for money to accrue from resetting the CRA base year, as suggested by some CRAAB members, would delay this project and not maximize its impact as a revenue generator to downtown.  However, Curtin and Stephenson were adamant in opposing any borrowing against future earnings to allow the park to be constructed sooner.

After 45 minutes of discussion, chair Zaffaroni said, “We have made zero progress.  Let’s bring this circular business to a close.”

City Attorney Tammi Bach spoke briefly regarding the current situation involving the railroad tracks and crossings downtown.  She indicated that she would meet with CSX officials April 2 and hopefully report out to the FBCC at their regular meeting that evening.

The meeting concluded with CRAAB members agreeing to provide Gibson with a list of items or questions for Westmoreland to address during her training session for the FBCC.  One idea:  how to combat the perceptions that individual developers are being favored in the CRA.  Curtin also raised the need to benefit from other communities’ experience.  He cited the positive example of Palatka, FL and the fact that their CRA was established in 1983 and they are considering extending it.  Filkoff said that she is unsure that the current FBCC agrees that there is a problem that the CRA could solve.

Chair Zaffaroni wrapped up the meeting by saying that downtown is the heart and soul of the city, but that the area needs more jobs and investment to continue to be successful.  “You either get better or you get worse,” he said.  “We must continue on the path of getting better.”

April 2, 2013 8:33 a.m.

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