Tax-increment financing district discussions approved between Sarasota County staff and Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization

Revenue from the district could help pay for community park and cultural arts venue on 53 bayfront acres in city of Sarasota

In July 2017, the Sarasota Bay Planning Organization featured this graphic on its website, showing the acreage on the bayfront. Image from the SBPO

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission approved the start of discussions between county administrative staff and the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO) on a potential funding mechanism for The Bay Sarasotaproject.

Bill Waddill, managing director of the SBPO, had sent an April 30 letter to Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho, making “a formal request to discuss the possibility of establishing a [tax-increment financing] district on or around the 53 acres known as The Bay.”

The SBPO has been providing regular updates to the Sarasota City Commission over the past couple of years regarding a community proposal to transform the city-owned land on Sarasota Bay into a cultural arts development with an emphasis on public access and amenities.

“Our process is about a community conversation,” Waddill told the County Commission during its regular meeting on May 9. The SBPO has been working very hard, he said, to create a design “for all ages, for all demographics, for all incomes.”

In his most recent remarks to the Sarasota city commissioners — on April 16— Waddill pointed out that the goal is for final recommendations to be presented to them on Sept. 6. Those will include recommendations on financing the project, as the potential for a new, larger performing arts venue has been one focus of the design process.

This is the ‘Bridge the Divide’ concept, one of three created for the Sarasota bayfront and shown to the public in April. Image courtesy Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization

Representatives of the Watertown, Mass.-based planning firm the SBPO hired last year — Sasaki— will be back in town in a couple of weeks, Waddill continued. They are working to winnow three concepts to one, he added, based on thousands of comments from members of the public.

During the County Commission’s regular meeting on May 8, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis raised the issue of the tax-increment financing (TIF) district request, adding that administrative staff was seeking general direction from the board members.

Commissioner Charles Hines was the first to express willingness to allow staff to begin discussions with Waddill.

“I’m looking for all ways to be helpful to the project,” Chair Nancy Detert added of the plans for The Bay Sarasota.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us beginning the discussion,” Commissioner Alan Maio said.

Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion to approve those discussions, with a second from Hines.

Hines, Detert and Maio all noted that, the following day, an item on the commission agenda would entail a discussion of the community redevelopment area (CRA) process and TIFs. Maio and Hines suggested Waddill — who was in the audience — be present for that discussion.

Maio also pointed out that, before Waddill retired in early January from the Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm in Sarasota — where Maio also was a principal before his 2014 retirement — he and Waddill traveled around the state, working on CRA issues.

Bill Waddill. Image from LinkedIn

Waddill reminded the board members of his expertise on CRAs and TIFs the following day. At their request, he offered his comments at the conclusion of the CRA presentation, which was conducted by Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.

One of the projects on which Kimley-Horn worked during his and Maio’s tenure there, Waddill explained, was the first phase of Bradenton’s Riverwalk, which opened about four years ago. That was a much smaller initiative, Waddill said, than The Bay Sarasota promises to be, but it had seven or eight funding sources to cover its $7-million expense. One of them was tax-increment financing through a CRA.

For The Bay Sarasota, Waddill continued, “we’re looking at 15 or 20, probably, different funding sources over a 10- or 15-year period, so we would be leveraging these different sources … for us to do something really amazing for our community.”

Crafting a TIF district

As Osterhoudt had explained during his May 9 presentation, with a TIF, the taxable value of a community redevelopment area is “frozen” at the level of whatever base year is chosen. Any ad valorem tax revenue reflecting an increase in the property value year-to-year goes to the CRA.

By state statute, Osterhoudt pointed out, a 5% administrative fee may be processed by the local government that establishes the CRA. However, the remaining 95% of the revenue goes to the CRA.

A chart shows reasons that can serve as the basis for creation of a CRA. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to questions from Maio — who said he knew the answers but wanted them on the record — Osterhoudt confirmed that if the County Commission were to establish a new CRA, it could set the life of that funding mechanism to last up to 40 years, per state law. The commission also could set the boundaries of the CRA, Osterhoudt said.

“And we can set the parameters on what I would call the ‘governance committee,’” so if the board establishes a new CRA, Maio asked, “we will have representation on it?”

Osterhoudt indicated that Maio was correct in that interpretation of state law.

Osterhoudt also pointed out that the commission could create a “home rule” district. Unlike a CRA, he explained, that would not have to abide by state statutory language for CRAs regarding use of the TIF revenue for projects to rid the designated area of slums and blight.

“As a legislator,” Detert said with a chuckle, “I was always amazed at how many classy areas didn’t mind calling themselves a slum in order to get taxpayer dollars.”

One of the options the County Commission would have under a home rule district, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh pointed out, would be to serve as the governing body. If the board members chose to pursue creation of a home rule district for the area encompassing the 53 bayfront acres, DeMarsh added, he would work with them on an ordinance laying out how plans for use of the revenue would be developed and approved.

Thoughts on a bayfront TIF

Following the commission’s vote the previous day to have its staff work with the SBPO, Waddill noted, the organization had asked Deputy County Administrator Botelho to be part of its working group focused on funding sources.

The Bay Sarasota website features this among a number of banners illustrating potential uses of the bayfront land. Image from The Bay Sarasota

“We certainly haven’t drawn a boundary,” he said, or talked about what percentage of annual revenue from a TIF would be necessary for The Bay Sarasota project. However, he continued, SBPO members have discussed including properties that border the 53 acres as part of the TIF district. That area includes hotels and condominium complexes whose occupants look out over the 30-acre parking lot for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, he noted.

Alluding to the residential development planned on the nearby Quay Sarasota site, Waddill said 15- to 18-story condominium towers will be built near the city-owned land in coming years. Those projects could generate TIF revenue, he added.

Then, after The Bay Sarasota was completed, he said, the residents of those new structures “would be looking at a great park, perhaps a new performing arts center.”

Even if the area immediately adjacent to the city land were included in the TIF district, he pointed out, the area still would be only about 25% to 30% the size of the Downtown Sarasota CRA, which ended in 2016. (The County Commission’s collaboration with the City of Sarasota on that 30-year project has been the source of a dispute since April 2016. See the related story in this issue.)

“The boundary for the TIF shouldn’t even remotelyresemble the boundary for the [Downtown Sarasota] CRA,” Maio stressed.

“So we’re really at baby step No. 1,” Chair Detert said. “It’s got a long way to go,” she added of The Bay Sarasota project.

Draft master plans should be available for public review later this month or in June, Waddill told her. “I believe, in the next couple of months, we’ll have some pretty good thoughts on what our recommendations are going to be and can be working back and forth with staff” regarding the TIF district, he said.
“Sounds great,” she replied.

Commissioner Moran did ask that Waddill and the SBPO members consider how their efforts could lead to economic development for Newtown and North Sarasota, which are part of the district he represents on the commission. Those areas should not be ignored, Moran added, given their relatives proximity to the bayfront property.

Further, Maio recommended that if a TIF district is established for The Bay Sarasota, the commission impose a one-year break after the life of the agreement. That way, he said all the property tax revenue from the district would go into the county’s General Fund. Then the board members would have time to decide, as well, he added, whether to extend the life of the district.