LARGO — For more than a decade, the city has been trying to transform the West Bay Drive area into a bustling downtown district. The sluggish economy of recent years certainly hasn't helped.
Now that the economy is starting to pick up, Largo officials are preparing to offer businesses and property owners a series of incentives in a renewed attempt to foster the creation of offices, homes and storefronts in the district.
At this point, downtown's retail sector is outpacing the development of offices and housing.
"We're doing a great job right now with our retail space. It's all starting to fill in," said Teresa Brydon, Largo's economic development manager. "Hopefully, private developers are going to come in and say, 'Your downtown is really starting to fill up.'
"It's becoming a lot harder to find a vacant retail space in our downtown. They're pretty much booked up. We've got that, but we also want to add that office component to it."
Officials have been considering a series of four incentives:
• Grants to encourage the construction of apartments, condos and townhomes. The grants would amount to $5,000 per unit, or 5 percent of the land and construction costs, whichever is higher — up to $10,500 per unit.
• Grants to expedite the construction of office space in the district. This would include mixed-used projects with at least 15,000 square feet of offices. The amount of each grant would depend on a formula that takes into the account the taxable value of new construction. The grants could only be used for public improvements such as landscaping, lighting, bike racks, sidewalks, drainage and parking lots.
• Small grants of $200 to help businesses replace their pole signs with monument signs. The city says 17 pole signs along West Bay in the district are required to be replaced by 2017.
• A job creation incentive that would reimburse employers up to $10,000 for each professional office job they add to the district.
Largo staffers and the City Commission have been honing these ideas at several work sessions over the past year, including one last week. Commissioners will vote on the incentives at a public meeting soon.
They plan to allocate $80,000 to kick off the program in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The money will come from tax increment funds raised in Largo's downtown community development district.
The incentives are designed to cut costs for developers and lure them downtown.
"It's specifically looking at ways to help lower the costs to come in and redevelop in our downtown — because a lot of times they've got to take down a building," Brydon said, which can cost $6,000 to $10,000. "That's a lot of money when you're talking about going into that location versus going down the street where there's a vacant parcel."
The job creation incentive has been the most controversial one for some city commissioners.
"I don't see the public good as much as I do with the other incentives," commissioner Robert Murray said. "With the others, I see concrete public good coming out of the incentives. There's infrastructure, there's buildings, improvements to the landscape. A business is not going to put somebody on the payroll until the demand is there."
Mayor Pat Gerard had similar concerns.
But they recently decided to support it after reviewing examples of similar programs in Lakeland, West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
"More jobs in the downtown bring higher sales for existing retailers and restaurants that are there in the district," Brydon said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.