City aims to jump-start CRA
By Angela Daughtry, News-Leader
As seen in the News-Leader
City commissioners conceded Tuesday that their Community Redevelopment Area in downtown Fernandina Beach needs more attention, and that an advisory board should be formed to address it.
The CRA was created in 2005 as a way to spur development in the downtown waterfront area and a few blocks upland. Given the economic recession, it has not done so.
A CRA is a special taxing district set up by municipalities with the goal of eliminating blight and enhancing the tax base to bring more revenues for improvement to the area. The city’s CRA comprises about 40 acres and 56 properties near the city’s riverfront, with public/private ownership about evenly divided.
After a CRA is created, property values within the area are “frozen” from the first year on, and any incremental tax revenues from an increase in property values go into a CRA trust fund. The trust fund is then used to finance public infrastructure improvements, which enhance property values and spur private development.
Fernandina Beach’s CRA has brought in virtually no funds, however, because the financial crash that began in 2007 stopped developers from investing in the area.
City Planner Kelly Gibson presented commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting with follow-up to some questions they had asked at an earlier workshop regarding the CRA.
Questions included whether the base year of the CRA should be re-set, whether the CRA should be expanded, whether the city commission should continue to be the CRA agency and how often the agency should meet.
Commissioner Charles Corbett asked what the purpose of the CRA is, since very few properties, if any, have benefited from it. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch also asked why the CRA should be continued.
“When it was started in 2005, there was a boom going on,” Bunch said. “What could be the harm in doing away with the CRA until times get better? It’s not collecting any money. Maybe we should wait a year or two years down the road.”
But Commissioner Tim Poynter said the CRA isn’t really costing the city anything, and still has potential to spur development downtown.
“Nothing’s happening because nothing’s happening,” Poynter said. “The economy tanked and so did the project. I’d hate to dissolve it and go through it again when values are higher.”
Gibson noted resetting the year of the CRA was relatively simple, but expanding it or reestablishing it was much more complicated and would take several months of staff time. She also said any changes to the CRA do not require county approval, but she recommended a discussion with the county anyway.
“The county has to go along with us, whether they approve it or not,” she said.
Mayor Arlene Filkoff said she would like to see “some sort of effort” made to get the CRA going. “We’ve met once in six years, so it’s not getting a lot of focus,” she said.
Gibson said city staff has put several programs in place, such as a density bonus program, that would make the CRA more desirable for developers who want to invest in it.
“We’ve gotten some things in place for development if it happens,” Gibson said. “You have to take an active role and be involved with property owners every day … and provide them with direction and resources to accomplish their goals.” She also said the CRA could benefit from a “point
person or people, ideally someone identifiable in the community.”
According to Gibson’s presentation, a CRA advisory board would be tasked with reviewing the CRA plan, developing a contact list, creating a marketing plan and communication strategy and becoming a source for information on CRA activities.
“Nobody’s working on it,” resident Lou Goldman complained. “You should have two more people who would deal with developers.” He also noted there are 200 CRAs in Florida, some of them in towns as small as Fernanadina Beach.
“You should change the base year and expand it to Eighth Street,” Goldman said, “and find out what it will take for developers to get started.”
Commissioners agreed they should continue as the CRA agency, and that they would discuss forming an advisory board at their meeting in July. City Manager Joe Gerrity said he would talk with County Manager Ted Selby about the possibility of re-setting the base year.