Creating jobs in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods is no easy task. But a new approach in Hillsborough County to target redevelopment efforts there is worth exploring, particularly if the county can ensure the program doesn't become a slush fund for elected commissioners.
County staff has proposed establishing a $20 million fund in the 2015 budget to finance redevelopment projects across the county in "under-served areas." The county would borrow the initial $20 million, and supplement it on an annual basis with about $1 million or more to create a fund that acts as seed money for other public and private investment. The initial amount would be repaid with a portion of proceeds from the increase in the county tax base.
The money would be directed to projects that improve the jobs climate and quality of life in cash-strapped areas. Those catchphrases are amorphous, but the concept is to improve the public infrastructure in ways that bring new jobs and private investment to challenged areas. That could mean funding everything from new sidewalks and flood-control projects to larger efforts aimed at cleaning up contaminated lands. The county hopes these new assets will improve an area's business climate and appeal.
The idea is still largely a blank canvas; county staff say they will provide more detail by October, including a work list of potential projects. But the process is being guided by sound principles. The challenge will be in writing clear criteria for these projects while also being fair and flexible enough to address the different neighborhood needs across the diverse county.
Officials, though, have offered a thoughtful framework. The plan recognizes at the outset that the redevelopment fund will not act as a surrogate for the delivery of core county services. These projects need to go above and beyond the infrastructure work that already is lagging on the county's work list.
The plan would also leverage money from other institutional sources, such as state, federal and foundation grant money. That could provide new streams of revenue and technical help with redevelopment efforts. And it opens the door to new public-private ventures that could give the county more bang for the buck.
The trick, of course, will be to draft a credible way of ranking the projects. Commissioners will have the final say on what gets funded. That's no different from the current budgeting process, but the sums of money involved and the high profile of this fund will make it a coveted political target.
Used responsibly, though, the fund could be a tool for getting community plans off the ground, for promoting small business and for creating a sense of place in areas of the county that need a shot in the arm. This in no way should distract the county from working more strategically to diversify the industrial base. But it can work in concert with larger economic development efforts by linking jobs and neighborhood vitality with quality of life. It's at least worth a worthwhile shot.