The future of the city's ambitious Midtown project, a proposed residential and commercial district on 85 acres south of downtown, got a boost this week when legislators approved a bill to help cities considering urban renewal projects tackle stormwater runoff issues more easily.
The legislation approved unanimously in the Florida House on Tuesday and three weeks ago in the Senate would allow Plant City to tear out acres of abandoned concrete foundations and asphalt in the Midtown district without having to build stormwater retention ponds or some other elaborate drainage system to capture runoff. The bill requires Gov. Rick Scott's signature, but lawmakers say they don't anticipate a problem.
"That's awesome," City Manager Greg Horwedel said Tuesday when told of its approval. "We're absolutely thrilled that bill has passed."
The requirement by the state's Department of Environmental Protection to build ponds has blocked city efforts for more than two years to redevelop 13 acres essential to Midtown's redevelopment. The project's anchor, the site just south of Renfro Street, is expected to house a 1-acre "village green" surrounded by shops, offices, restaurants and condominiums. Officials are hoping the project sparks private development south on the remaining 72 acres that make up Midtown.
For years, backers of the amendment, including state Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, argued it didn't make sense to require ponds in downtowns equipped with in-ground drainage systems. The requirement also caused headaches for developers who balked at taking on urban renewal projects, knowing each one could trigger a conflict with environmental officials. As a result, many projects, including Plant City's, lingered.
"Politics is a tangled web and we had to work hard to get this bill through the committees and onto the floor for a vote," Raulerson said Tuesday. "It feels great to get this done."
Raulerson credited former Rep. Rich Glorioso, who led efforts last year and before that to pass the bill, and state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who pushed for passage in the Senate. For the past two legislative sessions, the bill sailed through the House but became mired in the Senate's budget committee headed by then-Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lakeland. Alexander left the Senate last year because of term limits.
If backed by Scott, the bill will become law July 1.
Its passage will enable Plant City to set the groundwork to market Midtown to development companies this year or early next year. Before that, officials will need to submit a revised conceptual master plan to the DEP to explain how Midtown will tie in to the city's drainage network.
Several other Midtown-related projects are already moving forward. Officials plan to break ground this summer on a project to realign Wheeler Street between Renfro and Alabama streets and then to carry the road south to Ball Street. Officials want to remove an awkward curve on Wheeler to make it consistent with other downtown streets.
Additionally, last year the city removed contaminated soil from former industrial sites in Midtown and updated the city's building and zoning codes to identify where buildings will go and how they should be oriented toward the street. The changes will help entice developers to Midtown, Horwedel said.
"Every hurdle you remove makes it easier to attract interest," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.