TAMPA — Tampa’s nine Community Redevelopment Areas, created to eradicate blight, have had their successes over the past 35 years: see Downtown and the Channel District.
But their effectiveness as an economic development tool has come under fire from activists and some residents who question how much redevelopment areas have helped the average person, especially in heavily minority East Tampa.
That discontent has now found receptive ears on City Council.
At a meeting earlier this month, some members of the council — which oversees redevelopment areas — said turning over management to outside agencies like local non-profits is an idea worth exploring.
“We have a very big — huge — fiduciary responsibility to make sure that it’s done in the best possible way and the most inclusive possible way and so maybe it’s more inclusive to let the community itself be involved in managing it as opposed to the city doing it on a top-down basis,” John Dingfelder, a new council member, said at the May 9 board meeting.
Dingfelder suggested bidding out management of the East Tampa renewal area as a pilot project. The renewal area is one of the largest in the state, covering 4,817 acres roughly bounded by Interstate 275 and 50th Street between Columbus Drive and Hillsborough Avenue. Created in 2003, East Tampa’s renewal area had $2.921 million in its ending 2018 fund balance, third most among the city’s CRAs behind the Downtown and the Channel District.
Renewal areas get their revenue from property taxes within the district’s boundaries, specifically the difference between tax collected in 2003 — the base year — and subsequent years. Basically, if a property has gained any value since 2003, that money has gone to the renewal area.
Some residents say they haven’t gotten much in return for the millions collected, pointing to East Tampa’s continued status as one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Connie Burton, a longtime East Tampa activist, said residents are upset at city officials salaries eating up a chunk of that money.
“We believe it’s a new day. We have a new City Council, even a new mayor,” she said at last week’s council meeting.
Using city staff to operate the day to day activities of the renewal areas saves money, said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s economic opportunity administrator who oversees their operations.
The overhead and administrative costs amount to 3.7 percent of the $29.1 million in total revenues. The city also provides plenty of free services to renewal areas, including legal and accounting services, construction bidding and inspections, McDonaugh said.
Council member Orlando Gudes, who represents East Tampa, isn’t convinced the structure needs to change for the East Tampa renewal area to be more successful in spurring development. He’s hoping Mayor Jane Castor will pay more attention to it than previous administrations. The focus has been on downtown and Channelside, he said, and those renewal areas are thriving.
“You have to have an administration willing to put the resources in to it. I believe the effort hasn’t been totally there,” he said.
Renewal areas can’t share revenues. The Downtown renewal area had an ending fund balance in 2018 of more than $17 million, but that money has to be spent within its borders.
Castor, like her predecessors, has very little direct power over the renewal areas. City Council members, as the renewal area board, has the final say over their operations. They approve advisory committee members in most of the areas and exercise oversight on spending and projects.
Complaints that city staff are being paid out of redevelopment area dollars are misplaced, McDonaugh said. Managers of the renewal areas work exclusively in those areas, "that's their full-time job," he said. Revenue from the renewal area pays 85 percent of their salaries. The city pays the rest — a cost-savings to the renewal areas, he said.
A police officer whose salary is paid out of East Tampa's renewal area dollars is devoted full-time to tracking down illegal dumping and was assigned at the request of the renewal area's community advisory committee — local residents appointed by the community with city council oversight.
"Everything we do is a direct result of what the community asked for," McDonaugh said, citing another example raised by Gudes --- the maintenance of public restrooms in the Centro Ybor parking garage. Those bathrooms were requested by the Ybor City Development Corporation, which operates the two Ybor City renewal areas, because of concerns about public urination in the popular bar and entertainment district.
McDonaugh, whose $175,550 annual salary is split between the renewal area and the city, said city management provides an additional benefit to renewal areas by leveraging city and state funds to make improvements.
Dingfelder’s outsourcing idea has support. Council members Bill Carlson and Guido Maniscalco both said they thought outsourcing the management of CRAs is a valid option. A recent bill approved by the Florida Legislature tightens transparency and accountability requirements for renewal areas, something Carlson said should be a warning to the city.
“We’ve got to make them worthwhile and get results,” he said.
McDonaugh said the city already does everything required in the state legislation, including providing regular reports to the county and state and holding ethics training for board members.
Maniscalco, a former renewal area chairman, said Tampa’s renewal areas are the “gold standard” of the state, but could always improve. “It never hurts to have a second pair of eyes on it,” he said, referring to outside management.
The current renewal area chairman, Joe Citro, wasn’t sold on the idea of removing the city from its management duties.
“If he can find a better, cheaper way, more power to him,” Citro said of Dingfelder’s proposal. “But we’re saving money by using city staff.”
Citro has served on the board of the Ybor City Development Corporation, which manages the two Ybor City renewal areas. He said the staff “is worth its weight in gold.”
Gudes counters that CRA managers and McDonaugh serve at Castor's behest and, although she doesn't have veto power over the renewal board's decisions, she can still exert considerable influence.
Viera said he thinks the bigger issue, especially in East Tampa, is a broader discussion on economic development for the city’s poorest neighborhoods—a constant issue in the recently concluded campaigns.
“In East Tampa, there is a lot of discontent. We as a City Council have to listen and act,” Viera said, adding he’d have to see evidence of abuse before voting to outsource management of renewal areas.
The issue will come back in July after council members voted to ask staff to report back with possible options.