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Are Community Redevelopment Areas hurting Tampa?

Some City Council members say the popular redevelopment tools are unfair to other neighborhoods.
Tampa City Council members don't agree on much when it comes to the city's eight Community Redevelopment Areas.
Tampa City Council members don't agree on much when it comes to the city's eight Community Redevelopment Areas. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]
Published Oct. 14, 2019

TAMPA — Last year, this city collected $28.7 million in property tax revenue within Tampa’s eight Community Redevelopment Areas, entities created specifically to jump-start blighted neighborhoods.

But there’s a question now dividing City Council members: Are the redevelopment areas shortchanging other neighborhoods in Florida’s third-largest city?

Their revenues don’t go into the general fund, which pays for police and fire protection, parks and a myriad of services. Under state law, tax dollars generated each year from increased property values in a redevelopment area are spent only on improvements in that area.

Nearly every corner of the city has one. East Tampa, West Tampa, Tampa Heights, Ybor City, the Channel District, Drew Park, Central Park and Downtown all fall within redevelopment areas. But Tampa City Council members Bill Carlson and Charlie Miranda aren’t sure that’s fair to everyone else.

Carlson, who represents South Tampa, said he’s heard plenty from residents who want to dissolve or cap redevelopment areas so that money flows back into the general fund after a certain level of revenue is reached.

“My philosophy on CRAs is that they give the wrong incentive... They force the rest of the city to subsidize those areas and it shows a lack of trust in government,” Carlson said at a meeting last week. “The purpose of a CRA really is that you don’t trust the government to spend money in an area where you think it needs to be spent.”

A push to create a new redevelopment area around the University of South Florida is a bad idea, Carlson said.

“I don’t think the problem around USF is real estate. It’s poverty,” Carlson said.

Miranda, who has been a council member on and off since the 1970s, has a similar take.

The bulk of the city not covered by redevelopment areas lose out, he said. “They’re not getting the benefit they should get out of those tax dollars.”

Council Chairman Luis Viera noted that the Legislature has been attempting to curtail redevelopment areas in recent years. There are 220 currently across Florida. That attitude in Tallahassee ignores their beneficial impact in Tampa, he said.

“We have to be careful we’re not doing Tallahassee’s work for them,” Viera said. “I don’t look at it as the distribution of city wealth from one area to another.”

Redevelopment areas have become a flash point between Mayor Jane Castor’s administration and City Council as council members have sought to exert more power over how they operate.

RELATED: Should City Council hire its own CRA chief?

Several council members indicated last month they want to hire an executive director that would report to them, not the mayor. That issue will be discussed at an Oct. 28 council workshop.

There’s a lot at stake. While restricted to infrastructure improvements, redevelopment area revenues can be used to build sidewalks and parking garages, to beautify buildings or add street lamps.

RELATED: Who should control Tampa’s CRAs?

Council members act as the final authority of redevelopment areas when they sit as the CRA board. Council member Joseph Citro, the board chairman, said it’s important to remember that each area has city staff acting as managers and volunteers making recommendations in citizen advisory councils.

Residents, not council members, should decide how the money raised within the area gets spent, Citro said.

Yet how to spend the all those millions each year appears to be a point of division among council members.

Carlson proposed restricting facade grants — grants given to spruce up the exteriors of buildings within the areas — to historic buildings. That proposal failed.

Other council members said the facade grants helped struggling businesses, especially along well-traveled thoroughfares. Many small business owners are just barely making it and don’t have the capital to invest in a new sign, awning or other upgrades.

“Perception is reality for some people. If you don’t have a good looking place I don’t want to go there,” said councilman Orlando Gudes.

Businesses with deep pockets getting up to $50,000 in facade grants bothers council member John Dingfelder. He suggested some sort of mean-testing to weed out business owners who can afford to do their own improvements.

Gudes agreed, asking that city staff develop a need-based assessment for businesses applying for facade grants in the East Tampa redevelopment area, the city’s largest and poorest.

City staff said the Oct. 28 workshop would be an opportunity to delve into these issues in more depth. A second workshop might be necessary.

“This is how we partner to get this issue resolved and create what you are looking for so that it meets your needs,” said Michelle Van Loan, a city redevelopment area official.