Two things seem clear when it comes to the recent debate over hiring a consultant to create new redevelopment plans for Tarpon Springs: One, residents will look askance at public officials who even think about spending a million dollars on a consultant contract in this economy, and two, if you are going to pursue such a plan, it is important to bring everyone onboard.
At last week's Tarpon Springs City Commission meeting, every person who got up to speak was opposed to the city's plan to pay close to $1 million of Community Redevelopment Agency funds, plus almost $125,000 from the city's general fund, to hire a consultant to develop new redevelopment plans for several areas of Tarpon Springs. Most of the speakers, unfortunately, were the people paying most of the bill: property owners in the city's community redevelopment area downtown.
Property owners would be expected to be among the most enthusiastic fans of the city's effort. After all, the goals of the proposal include improving the appearance of downtown and recruiting new businesses.
Instead, the property owners were staunch critics. They said the money should be spent on capital projects, not consulting, because that would create jobs and bring new businesses to town. If a consultant were needed, it shouldn't be an Orlando company, the Renaissance Group, but a local consultant, they said. The city already has downtown plans that haven't been completed, they said, and those should be completed first. And they felt they, as the taxpayers in the community redevelopment area, had been left out of the loop as the city made its plans.
As sometimes happens when controversy arises, the facts get lost in the emotion. So it is important to note:
• The city actually hired the Renaissance Group in March, after advertising for consultants that could help the city's small Planning and Zoning staff with a host of general planning work. Local firms were among the 10 that responded, but Renaissance rose to the top of the heap. The city agreed to pay Renaissance $250,000 for each of the next two years.
• The item on last week's agenda was a request from the Planning and Zoning department to double the amount of money going to Renaissance so the company could help the department tackle some high-priority projects established by the City Commission, including new plans for the community redevelopment district and the Sponge Docks, streetscape designs for N Safford Avenue and Lemon Street, and a business retention and recruitment strategy for downtown. The new contract amount: more than $1 million over two years.
• All of that sum was not for consulting or plan documents. About $500,000 of the almost $1 million in CRA funds would go to streetscape work.
After hearing from the critics, a couple of city staffers unfortunately responded rather defensively. Planning Director Renea Vincent said she was "not in the mood to stand up here and try to defend" projects the city had been talking about for more than a year. And after Mayor Beverley Billiris asked City Manager Mark LeCouris if he had been meeting with the downtown property owners, he responded, "They know my number." That's hardly a way to build excitement and loyal support for city plans.
City commissioners, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, stayed above the fray at Tuesday's meeting and took a conservative approach. They approved paying Renaissance $500,000 over the next two years, and will make a decision about the additional $500,000 later. They also voted unanimously to set up a steering committee of local residents to help guide the city as it makes its redevelopment plans.
The good news in all this is that the city of Tarpon Springs is looking ahead, drawing up plans and hiring experts to help. As for whether a recession is the best time to do this, the resulting plans may turn out better than they would if they were created while developers were hovering over the city trying to influence the process. By acting now, Tarpon Springs will be well positioned when the economy turns around.