Act boldly to revitalize southwest part of Manatee County

April 12, 2013 

While Manatee County's overall economic health continues to improve, one portion remains stuck in a rut. The southwest quadrant, particularly along Tamiami Trail, sorely needs attention.

In a report to commissioners about the county's How Will We Grow project, the Urban Land Institute revived two concepts that the county first discussed more than a year ago: expanding the South County and 14th Street community redevelopment agencies and implementing Home Rule Tax Increment Financing.

Both ideas provide avenues to revitalization and development to combat blight by financing infrastructure improvements to attract private investments and enterprises.

But the county has determined that neither is viable at this time because property values have yet to bottom out in the South County CRA.

Such agencies are financed by the growth in property taxes as values rise from the base amount upon the creation of the agency. Expanding the boundaries while property values are still declining would be counterproductive.

While pockets of the southwest are prospering -- the growth of industries by the airport, the expansion of IMG Academy and the residential and commercial construction north of University Parkway, for example -- the county needs to find a way to pursue improvements more aggressively.

One place to start is the stretch of U.S. 41 from the border with Sarasota north into Bradenton, which lacks much charm even with several major regional assets along the route.

With the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, New College of Florida and the Ringling Museum of Art clustered around the southern gateway into Bradenton, the neighborhood holds greater potential than is being realized. As passengers exit Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and head north into the Friendly City, their initial views must be discouraging.

Just the road -- with three lanes in each direction and a wide open and dangerous turn lane in the middle -- is an unsightly expanse of blacktop. This is not the greeting the county should project to visitors, especially business people considering investing in the community and developing projects here. Visual blight is a handicap that cannot be discounted.

To the south, Sarasota enjoys landscaped medians with dedicated turn lanes to prevent head-on collisions and other crashes from inattentive motorists. Despite slow progress on the redevelopment of this Sarasota neighborhood, the county still holds an advantage over Manatee -- a far more attractive introduction.

The Urban Land Institute cited the education-airport zone as prime for development, urging the county to view U.S. 41 as "the spine" of the area and suggesting the creation of "greenway links" and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly assets.

"The time to act boldly is now," the UIL team leader Michael J. Maxwell told commissioners.

We agree.

Another idea is on the table. Both USF and the Manatee Chamber of Commerce advocate legislative approval of an Economic Development Zone along U.S. 41 at the USF campus. Such zones provide tax and other incentives to businesses in order to stimulate growth and development and revitalize distressed areas.

This would promote more mixed-use development and complement the university's growth. The school unveiled an ambitious $50 million expansion plan last August with the goals of creating an academic hub, building student housing and doubling enrollment over the next five years.

Funding will be a challenge, though legislation sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would allow private investors to build and improve public facilities.

The county's How Will We Grow visioning exercise places a high priority on the southwest. Planners recognize the area as essential to the county's economic wellbeing by emphasizing the southwest in two of the three alternative plans for future growth.

Both of those proposals allow higher densities and taller buildings, one specifically targeting the U.S. 41 corridor and the other a much broader area west of Interstate 75.

With the Urban Land Institute confirming the county's focus on the southwest, commissioners should be compelled to "act boldly" -- now.

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