PALMETTO -- About four years ago, Palmetto officials conceived a plan to take their Community Redevelopment Agency in a new direction.
It was bold, inventive, calculating and required many levels of expertise. It began as a dream, but it's on the verge of reality.
The downtown core plan is a comprehensive, multi-layered plan that runs the gamut from making architectural improvements to downtown buildings, to attracting new businesses, to improving the riverfront and more.
CRA Director Jeff Burton said the first steps were to break down the CRA districts into varied land uses and begin creating incentives to attract new businesses.
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One of the first businesses to latch onto the incentives was It Works Global in 2013, which relocated its headquarters to Palmet
to after purchasing Riverside Plaza. The company opened its doors for business May 19 and received about $600,000 in relief over a 10-year period in building fees and taxes, as well as incentives for hiring local vendors. But the incentives come with conditions, including not having any code enforcement issues, which could reduce or negate the incentives.
City officials say the arrival of a wellness and lifestyle company is a catalyst of what is to come.
It Works Public Affairs Officer Kate Martin said CEO Mark Pentecost chose Manatee County for the company's headquarters because it is a destination location.
"The improvements going on and planned for downtown Palmetto only add to and amplify the excitement, and Mark is excited that It Works can be a part of that, as well as working with and giving back to the community," she said.
The It Works facility is a key example of where the city is heading, Burton says.
"If that site doesn't put an exclamation point that we are serious about this, nothing does," he said. "This plan started with a lot of hopes and dreams and we are beginning to see it become tangible."
The downtown core plan establishes targeted improvement boundaries that encompass the heart of the city, but also stretch beyond downtown.
The planning and zoning board has been working on the final details of the plan for the past five months. Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said it should come before the city commission by the end of June, and then be sent to the state for another review.
Pledged funding could then be released from agencies such as the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Transportation and Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization. The plan has other allies such as the Economic Development Council, which Burton credits for guiding It Works to Palmetto's growing business-friendly environment.
Woes of success
The city's plan is garnering so much success that the pledged funding will be hard to keep up with because the majority of it is 50-percent match funding.
The city applied for six grants through the MPO for corridor enhancement funding. Not only did all six projects receive a grant award, "they ranked as the top six projects submitted," said Burton. "It's awesome but also daunting. We've been doing this for a couple of years and have about $3.5 million pledged toward our projects, but we have to match half of that."
Burton said the CRA's debt is low, but they want that debt resolved before approaching the core plan more aggressively. The debt could be eliminated with the sale of the old Shell gas station property on the corner of Eighth Avenue West at the foot to Green Bridge.
"Even that was helped financially by an MPO corridor assessment grant," said Burton. "They helped us remove the gas station and bring in clean fill. Now we have that available for redevelopment and are working on an invitation to notice to invite developers that have an interest to build a multi-use building there."
With so much detailed growth in the city's future, from new businesses to the restoration of historic buildings, how fast and how much change will be the balance beam city officials now walk.
"The one thing we don't want to do is change downtown from what it is," said Burton. "Palmetto's sophistication levels are growing, but we are working hard to remember who we are and where we come from."
Bryant agreed, saying paramount in priorities is for the city to retain its character.
"We like our character here," she said. "Most people move here like that Palmetto still has a small town quality."
The city is successfully making that balancing act, contends City Clerk Jim Freeman.
"This plan is a good balance in terms of what we are trying to protect in the character of Palmetto, but still allows us to move forward to bring in businesses and improve infrastructure, which grows the services we can provide to our citizens," he said. "And it means more jobs. More businesses means more jobs, which means more tax base, which means more services."
Interest is growing
Bryant said awareness about the incentives the city has in place for businesses is spreading.
"There is a lot of interest in Palmetto," she said. "At least once a week, we will get a call from a major outside entity that wants to inquire about CRA property and benefit from our economic incentive programs."
Even before the downtown core plan is implemented, the city has been involved in aspects of the plan's goals, which include improving Sutton Park, tweaking ordinances to improve appearances and a $1 million improvement to the Riverside Park boat ramp scheduled for this summer.
While the city is being proactive with the overall vision, once the old gas station site sells, "it will be a great point to have the conversation of how fast we want this done and how aggressive we will be," Burton said.
The city is doing well with a "pay as you go" philosophy, he said, but the plan could take up to 15 years at that pace.
Freeman noted that the proverbial money train will drive itself once major projects are completed.
"We've learned from what other people have done," he said. "We want the money the CRA generates to stay in the CRA and fund more CRA projects."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.