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New Port Richey makes ill-fated decision to end subsidy for downtown development

A split New Port Richey City Council can't help its downtown image. It's unfortunate because a dominant image that lingers is of ill-fated real estate speculating and a stalled mixed-use development due to actions from past councils.

Now, the current council can't muster three votes to continue promoting its downtown via Greater New Port Richey Main Street Inc. On Tuesday evening, the council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, failed to approve a $30,000 appropriation to the group amid concerns about cost-cutting elsewhere in the city budget stemming from falling property values.

Those budgetary considerations are legitimate in light of the city suspending its redevelopment fix-up grants to home­owners and eliminating code enforcement and other positions. However, the move by council members Ginny Miller and Bob Langford to strip Main Street of its city subsidy comes too late in the budget season. The fiscal year begins in just two weeks and their late-in-the-game ploy leaves the downtown promoters with a huge and likely insurmountable hole in their budget.

And, the regrettable quirk of having Judy DeBella Thomas in dual roles of elected council member and paid Main Street executive director came into full, excruciating play. Thomas could not vote on the $30,000 annual contract between the city and Main Street so it died on a 2-2 vote. Yet the council did approve the CRA budget for the coming year — with the Main Street appropriation included — on a 3-2 vote. Miller and Langford dissented. It leaves the city with $30,000 earmarked for a contract that cannot be executed.

Greater New Port Richey Main Street operates under the Florida Main Street mission that calls for a four-pronged approach to downtown improvements: community organizing, promotions, design standards and economic restructuring. But the most high-profile work is the five events New Port Richey Main Street puts on annually to draw visitors downtown.

City assistance to Greater New Port Richey Main Street neared $75,000 in 2005. It's been declining since and was scheduled to be cut by 25 percent to $30,000 under the proposed contract, which also spelled out a minimum cut of $5,000 the following year and potentially no funding at all.

Trying to wean the group from city subsidies is laudable, but giving the organization just two weeks to do it is short-sighted and could threaten the group's existence. A more suitable budget would call for awarding the $30,000 contract now and then reducing the city payment to the group by a set amount — perhaps $10,000 a year over the next three years — to try to eliminate public contributions entirely. That would allow Greater New Port Richey Main Street time to ramp up its own fundraising, cut its overhead or scale back its event schedule to accommodate the shrinking tax dollars.

A thriving city needs a viable downtown core. Since the 1990s New Port Richey rebuilt its downtown streetscape, improved Sims Park and then designated its entire city as blighted in order to commit more property tax dollars to revitalization. The city borrowed heavily and invested in a rebuilt aquatic center and its Railroad Square pedestrian-friendly area and made a series of real estate purchases intended to control how those properties were redeveloped. But substantial private sector investing lagged at the same time property values declined. The city now must earmark nearly all of its CRA property tax dollars to pay down its debt.

An immediate elimination of city funding to the group trying to enliven downtown makes no sense, particularly since the saved $30,000 was not earmarked for another use. (Miller wanted to put it in a contingency fund.)

Until a council majority recognizes the value of its Main Street group, the dead contract will go down as just one more ill-conceived decision in the name of redevelopment.

New Port Richey makes ill-fated decision to end subsidy for downtown development 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 4:50pm]
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