Geri Campos Lopez likens redevelopment to recycling — it’s something that exists but is not being used to its full potential.
“Redevelopment gives you the option of taking something that is a little bit older ... to be able to kind of massage it and grow it to kind of a better use so it’s a more sustainable opportunity,” said Manatee County’s redevelopment and economic opportunity director. “Because you are using something that is already in existence and you are not building new.”
As the leader of the county’s newest department, Lopez, 43, is tasked with helping redevelop some of Manatee County’s older, more tired areas.
“It’s exciting to be able to create a new department with this focus,” she said Friday afternoon as she concluded her second week on the job. Lopez’s annual salary is $125,000.
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The new department will house the county’s economic development and housing and community development efforts; and Southwest Tax Increment Financing District.
“My task is to be able to connect those, and I think the name of the department does a really good job of that,” Lopez said. “Clearly my focus is going to be the redevelopment so that’s really creating a lot from scratch. That will be the new part but on the other side, it’s really then about looking at economic opportunities across the board.”
The county did a nationwide search in finding a director for the new department, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said during a recent commission meeting.
“Geri has got a background in bringing public and private money to the table,” he said. “She’s been doing what we need done here.”
With more than 20 years of experience in the redevelopment field, Lopez was most recently Clearwater’s director of economic development and housing for 14 years during which she worked on a strategic plan for economic development, as well as bringing needed rental units to downtown Clearwater.
“We knew that we had to focus on rental housing in downtown because we had done a lot of work to bring in condominiums but we knew that in looking at our workforce that’s what they were asking for,” she said. “There was a real need there.”
After talking with the millennials during her first two weeks, Lopez said the need also exists in Manatee County.
“There really is this need for housing. That greater variety of housing options,” she said. “That’s just good for your community, having options to be able to keep your young people. A lot of baby boomers are empty nesters and they don’t want the big house with the yard and they also want to be closer to your trails and your restaurants and your cultural facilities.”
The county’s changes to the Land Development Code, which are intended to encourage redevelopment along six urban corridors, attracted Lopez to the position.
“That is really setting the foundation to attract that investment to be able to happen on those urban corridors, and that’s what I am going to be looking at from that redevelopment perspective,” she said.
While Hunzeker wants Lopez to look at redevelopment over a 30-year timeframe, Lopez said her more immediate goal is looking a five-year strategic plan of what can be done.
“I think while we look at that longer horizon, it’s really looking at this much shorter horizon given the strength of the economy, where it is where developers’ interests are, where some of that market demand is especially for housing and the type of housing,” she said. “Really looking at what those opportunities are then matching those with locations of where that can happen. I see a lot of potential with the college and the universities because from some initial conversations just with staff is that they have a lot of great student populations but yet they have no attractive housing options for them to live in near the school.”
For redevelopment to happen, the playing field must be leveled so that a site is either equally as attractive, if not moreso, than a greenfield site for a developer, Lopez said.
“That’s the lense that I would be looking at, of what’s really needed to be able to level that playing field to be able to attract that investment so for that I would be looking at what tools are available, whether it financing or incentives or other procedures or policies that may need to change,” she said.
The Southwest TIF district will be an initial focus from the redevelopment perspective, Lopez said.
“I think their perspective of really looking at those corridors is perfect because you have a lot of the existing infrastructure that is already there from transportation and utilities, but I think just from a growth perspective it makes so much sense to focus your attention on your more traditional areas because it’s more sustainable in the long run,” she said.
Meet Geri Campos Lopez
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Yale University and Master in City Planning, Urban Design Certificate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Previous experience: president and owner of Clearwater’s HCED Consulting, LLC; City of Clearwater director of economic development and housing as well as CRA interim director; senior analyst at Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Ma.; and housing development intern for Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation in Boston