Council says DDA’s Ezra deal was too secretive

BRADENTON -- City Council members are demanding changes in the way downtown development deals are struck after being left out of the loop on a controversial incentive package awarded to a local restaurant.

Ward 5 Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. and Ward 2 Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said the Downtown Development Authority should have briefed all council members before its board approved $250,000 worth of construction and rent subsidies for Ezra Cafe.

“I disagree in the way this particular situation went down, given the amount of money we’re talking about. ... We believe in transparency, and in this case I don’t think that was present,” Byrd said Wednesday during a council meeting.

Ward 3 Councilman Patrick Roff, who represents downtown, said he first heard about the agreement from media reports. Roff missed Wednesday’s council meeting while attending a Florida League of Cities event in Washington, D.C.

“I would have liked to have been informed about it before I was,” Roff said. “This is not the first time something like this has been handled this way.”

According to council members, the incentives have raised the ire of residents and entrepreneurs who question the amount of the investment and why other businesses weren’t brought into negotiations.

Council has the power to veto any DDA vote within 30 days, said William Lisch, the city’s attorney.

The only regular council meeting within that time frame is at 6 p.m. Feb. 23. Council members are scheduled to discuss the incentive package at a workshop Feb. 16.

Byrd said he will consider bringing the issue up for a veto vote because of opposition he has heard from constituents.

“With all the calls I’ve gotten and how I feel about it, I would have to say I would look at it,” Byrd said.

Ezra Cafe would be moved from 5629 Manatee Ave. W. to the SunTrust Building, 1001 Third Ave. W., this summer to inhabit the former JD’s Cafe and a vacant space behind it, according to the agreement.

The DDA board approved an award of $150,000 for construction and four annual $25,000 payments for rent subsidies. The award is contingent upon Ezra signing a lease with SunTrust Building owner Third Avenue Associates.

The construction contribution contains a “burn-out” clause that would require the restaurant to reimburse the DDA on a sliding scale if it leaves the location before the end of four years. The restaurant would receive $75,000 up front and the remainder when it receives a certificate of occupancy.

Although Mayor Wayne Poston admitted the administration could have kept the council better informed -- “This was a fumble,” he said -- staff members said a shuffling of DDA leadership played a part in the disconnect.

City Clerk Carl Callahan said then-DDA Executive Director Mike Kennedy was scheduled to attend a late January council workshop to discuss the Ezra incentives. Kennedy, who has since taken a job at Suncoast Community Capital, was ill that day and didn’t get a chance to speak to council members before he left his post.

“There was no ill intent. There was no trying to keep this out of the public eye,” Callahan told the council. “I think unfortunately, circumstances really make this thing worse than it is with Mike being out of here. Because Mike has tried to contact you in every instance beforehand with things coming up.”

Two council members, Ward 1 representative Gene Gallo and Ward 4’s Bemis Smith, said they were aware of the incentive package before the DDA meeting. Smith is the council’s DDA liaison.

“There’s nothing in my mind that tells me that this was a very secretive mission,” Gallo said. “This could be the start of something big for the city of Bradenton. If this is successful, then other people will be looking at it as a place to invest their money and try also.”

But Barnebey said there was no documentation for the Ezra agreement, even in the support documentation that came with the agenda for the DDA meeting.

Meanwhile, she noted, a standard $50,000 facade grant proposal produced a 21-page document from the DDA.

“We could have been the best cheerleaders for this thing ever, and we were caught flat-footed,” Barnebey said. “Do I take some responsibility for that? Yeah, I do. But I’m not the only one.

“We don’t need these kind of black eyes,” Barnabey added. “We have some momentum going. We have people caring about downtown.”

But Poston said he has also heard positive comments about the agreement.

“I’ve had some people take me to task on it,” he said. “But there are far fewer of those than there are the people that have said to me, ‘You’re making the right decision.’”

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