$400,000 will go toward first phase of creating the Arts, Culture and Education Center in the Town Center area of the island
As the Sarasota County Commission figuratively rang the death knell of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund in September 2015, it resurrected a process designed to spur economic development throughout the county.
Called the Community Reinvestment Program (CRP), the plan was to allow municipalities in the county — and even county government divisions — to seek grants from a county pool of funds.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to look at capital projects without the administrative overhead that is involved with special districts,” then-Commissioner Christine Robinson said as the County Commission discussed the CRP during a budget workshop on Feb. 20, 2015.
Use of money the City of Sarasota and the county had contributed to the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund for purposes other than eliminating slums and blight — as CRAs, by state statute, are created to do — was one reason cited for the County Commission’s reluctance to extend that CRA.
The Great Recession had led to the demise of the original Community Reinvestment Program in 2007, after the county awarded funds to three projects, including the beautification of Siesta Village. The new model, Robinson added, would “allow for competition within the county to have the best projects.”
Until April 25, however, no application for CRP assistance had won County Commission approval. One submitted by the City of Sarasota in 2016 for a new multipurpose field at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex did not meet the criteria for an award, county staff said at the time.
On April 25, the majority of the commissioners agreed that a CRP application for $400,000, submitted by the Town of Longboat Key, was worthy of support.
In collaboration with the Ringling College of Art + Design, the town will construct an Arts, Culture and Education Center in the Town Center area of Longboat Key, an April 25 county staff memo said. The facility will include “a Black Box Theater with support space, a gallery, studios and classrooms, a lounge [and] office/administrative space,” an April 25 staff memo said.
Only Commissioner Michael Moran voted “No” on the request, citing concern that the county board had not received a number of CRP applications to consider for the $1.4 million previous boards had set aside for the program.
“Why in the world don’t we have five proposals that we’re picking from?” Moran asked Jeff Maultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development. “It seems like we’re begging people to [let us] try and give them $1.4 million.”
“That’s an excellent question,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo responded, “and it is one that has publicly bewildered some of us since this program [was] … refreshed, if you will.” Caragiulo added, “I don’t now that there’s an answer out there …”
Commissioner Alan Maio agreed with the validity of the question. However, he added, “Municipalities feel that the guidelines [for the CRP comprise] a structure that doesn’t work for them.”
Nonetheless, Maio continued, “We want capital projects. We do not want [requests for] a stream of recurring money to do certain things.”
Chair Nancy Detert did seek assurance from Maultsby that town leaders would not come back, seeking funds for future phases of the planned facility if the commission approved the CRP application.
“That’s correct,” he told her.
If the commission agreed to the funding, Maultsby said, “the town and the county [would] enter into an interlocal agreement,” which would state the beginning and completion dates for the work the county would be funding. “If they fail to perform within those guidelines,” he added, “there would be a payback provision as well …”
The April 25 staff memo explained that the section of the Sarasota County Code regarding the CRP says that to be eligible for funding, a project must promote “one or more of the following sustainable growth goals:
- “Commitment to local procurement and local hiring.
- “Capital investment in areas experiencing underinvestment.
- “Sustainable transportation strategies.
- “Land use — walk score.
- “Minimize environmental impacts.
- “Sustainable water strategies.
- “Sustainable building strategies.
- “Balance jobs with housing.”
A project also must provide an economic stimulus to the county, and it must “leverage funding from other public and private sources,” the memo noted.
Additionally, the memo said, “the project must be a part of a municipal or County redevelopment program, master plan or policy adopted by the governmental entity to construct infrastructure in furtherance of the public interest. The term ‘infrastructure’ means any fixed capital expenditure or fixed capital outlay associated with the construction, reconstruction or improvement of public facilities that have a life expectancy of 5 or more years.”
The CRA issue
Chair Nancy Detert also pointed out on April 25 that, almost exactly a year ago — on April 26, 2017 — the county commissioners met with the Sarasota City Commission to try to iron out differences over the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund. During that meeting, in subsequent correspondence with city staff and during later County Commission discussions, county staff and county board members had suggested that the City of Sarasota consider submitting applications for projects that could win CRP funding.
“What bothers me,” Detert said, “is that we have never resolved our issue with the City of Sarasota.” She asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis whether board approval that day of the Longboat Key application would hinder attempts to do so.
“I believe we’re working towards a resolution, as we have been on multiple fronts with the City of Sarasota, that this will not adversely impact,” Lewis responded.
“We have beat, I know, the City of Sarasota over the head with joint meetings publicly to use [the CRP] as a process … to solve the CRA issue,” Commissioner Charles Hines also noted. “Why they haven’t done it, I don’t know. … [The CRP is] not some secret Mr. Harmer took with him.”
Hines was referring to the fact that previous County Administrator Tom Harmer — who was still with the county when the CRP was revived — took the job of town manager of Longboat Key in late 2017.
The Longboat application
The Town of Longboat Key’s application for the CRP funding says, that in the 2017 fiscal year, the town purchased the property where the Amore restaurant had stood, paying $2.2 million for it. In the 2014 fiscal year, the application adds, the town paid $1.5 million for land adjacent to that parcel. Thus, the total amount of property for the Town of Longboat Key Arts, Culture and Education Center will be 4.81 acres, the application notes.
The proposal, the application continues, will provide “options for residents and visitors to enhance quality of life on the island. It also potentially helps reduce the amount of resident traffic leaving the island during peak periods and other time frames to enjoy such amenities.”
Ultimately, the application says, the project will include an amphitheater.
The public improvements for which the town was seeking the CRP funds, the application adds, included demolition of the existing restaurant structure, re-grading and installation of sod, prepping the area “for an outdoor, grassed performance/community gathering venue until such time as the buildings are constructed,” and civil engineering work for the project.
The application also notes that the project would provide job opportunities.
The total projected expense of the project is about $16 million, the application says, with rising construction costs factored in over a three-year period.
Longboat Town Manager Harmer explained to the commission that the town had conducted a number of studies over the past several years in an effort to determine whether to pursue construction of the new facility. The project has been designed to provide economic stimulus and revitalization to the middle are of Longboat Key, Harmer pointed out.
Commissioner Hines made the motion to approve the application, and Commissioner Caragiulo seconded it.
Perhaps a favorable commission vote would bring more attention to the Community Reinvestment Program, Caragiulo said. “I think it’s a good project,” he added of the Longboat plan. “I’m happy to support it.”
“The City of Sarasota had every opportunity to lay claim to that [CRP money] with a proposal,” Detert said, but the County Commission has not seen one. “That ship is sailing today.”
She then looked at Harmer and another former county staffer — Isaac Brownman, who left his position as chief county engineer last year to helm the Town of Longboat Key’s Public Works Department. “I will support this today,” she said, chuckling, “hoping to never see you back on the same project.”
Hines’ motion then passed 4-1.