Timing right for Manatee County to focus on southwest sector

January 23, 2014 

Manatee County government appears poised to adopt a new strategic blueprint for the revitalization and development of the southwest portion of the unincorporated county. By converting both the South County Community Redevelopment Area and the 14th Street West Community Redevelopment Area into a broader Southwest Area Tax Increment Financing district, the county proposes to initiate more improvements by capturing additional property tax dollars.

In composing the "How Will We Grow?" plan over the past few years with community input, county administrators proposed an expansion back in February 2012 but backed off because property values had not bottomed out. Tax increment financing is based on rising revenues from those taxes, so the effort seemed pointless then.

But an Urban Land Institute report the county commissioned recommended the concept in a review of "How Will We Grow?" in March 2013. Portions of this sector of the county are struggling and need a bigger boost to overcome blight and attract private investment and new enterprises as well as improve residential neighborhoods by fighting crime and adding amenities.

While the idea of a new tax district is still evolving and specific projects have not been outlined, the potential is more far reaching that the status quo.

Should this proceed -- only one county commissioner voted against the preparation of legal documents earlier this month -- we highly recommend the county follow through with this thought advanced by several commissioners. Both current CRAs should be allowed to expend current bankrolls on projects within their boundaries as promised under their charters. That money should not be diverted elsewhere in a broader redevelopment district.

The South County CRA advisory board voted last week to allocate the remaining $2.5 million on securing additional sheriff's patrols, install more security cameras, build sidewalks and conduct cleanups. The vote came out of concern the county would absorb those dollars outside the district, and commissioners still have to approve those expenditures.

All that said, there are some disconcerting aspects to this. The current advisory boards of the two districts operate under strict state regulations. A new increment financing district would be unencumbered from several important restrictions. Funds could be expended on any county purpose, not just redevelopment, and no plan is required. Plus, the proposed district would not be subject to the state's open meetings law and advance public notice. Community members overseeing the TIF would be able to discuss business privately -- without public scrutiny.

While this sounds convenient and streamlined, as county Administrator Ed Hunzeker advanced in a Herald report, this also opens the door to influence peddling and backroom deals. The commission should eliminate this possibility by adopting transparency rules.

The proposed Southwest TIF boundaries stretch from Sarasota By on the west to Highway 301 on the east, and from the Sarasota-Manatee county line to Bradenton's city limits all the way up to Manatee Avenue.

The tax increment revenue will benefit greatly from major projects such as the ongoing expansion of IMG Academy and the development of Long Bar Pointe as those property values rise over the coming years.

Elsewhere, though, deteriorating residential neighborhoods and commercial strips need public investments in infrastructure to spur private redevelopment. The Urban Land Institute described the area's "weak urban character" as a challenge to growth. A Southwest Area Tax Increment Financing district could be a major factor in turning that around.

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