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Bradenton officials to square off with CRAs Wednesday morning

BRADENTON -- A Bradenton City Council proposal to abolish city community development agencies, including the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, has some major downtown investors nervous.

Vincent Crisci made several investments into downtown properties based on his relationship with the DDA. In a May 17 letter to the editor published in the Bradenton Herald, Crisci wrote: "The loss of the DDA would be a tremendous setback for the city."

His personal relationship with the DDA board and staff sparked his enthusiasm for downtown development, which included Darwin Brewery.

While city council has veto power over DDA projects, Crisci and others say it's important to have an agency like the DDA with the time

and energy to focus on their needs while touting downtown opportunities.

The council, which could vote as soon as next month to abolish the 14th Street CRA, the Central CRA and the Bradenton CRA, which includes the DDA -- will meet at 8 a.m. Wednesday with the CRA advisory boards to discuss the proposal at the Hampton Inn in downtown Bradenton.

Brian Long, director of development for the Widewaters Group, which invested $23 million in developing and managing the Hampton Inn, said the project happened with the DDA's help.

"I can tell you that when we first started the project in 2010, we didn't know anything about Bradenton," said Long, whose company is based in North Carolina. "All we knew was there was a building in extremely rough shape and the DDA was our first point of contact."

Long said the DDA had the time and expertise to educate him about the city's direction.

"Without that initial contact, it would have been hard to see from the outside the particular selling points of the community," he said, noting the hotel now brings 50,000 people a year into the downtown area spending about $2 million annually.

"I'm not passing judgment on the city council, and I can't say the project wouldn't have happened without the DDA," he said. "All I can do is speak from this experience and say the DDA is an important component in getting the project through. We worked very closely with the council, too, and at the end of the day, they approved it. But the DDA being able to put the deal together to present to the city council was an efficient way to get it done."

While major downtown players are rushing to defend the DDA's importance, the council will also hear from the other two CRA boards. The DDA also oversees the 14th Street West CRA.

Each CRA collects tax increment funding designed to be pumped back into the individual districts with the main goal being removal of slum and blight.

Council members have expressed frustration on the lack of progress in the Central CRA and the 14th Street West CRA, in particular. The DDA has been included in the potential dissolution, with only Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith publicly supporting preserving the DDA board, but not necessarily the DDA staff.

By state statute, the city council could not dissolve the three CRAs and consolidate them into one entity, but it can dissolve the boards and become the board for each CRA.

The concern from Crisci and Long is the council would be taking on too much responsibility to give individual projects the attention required, but Ward 5 Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. and Ward 3 Councilman Patrick Roff disagree.

"We need to make sure all the local city functions of government are running as effective as possible, and I've tried carefully not to get into the things people may feel or not feel correctly or incorrectly," said Byrd. "It's not about that. Incremental revenues are still public dollars and we owe it to taxpayers to make sure it's spent in an efficient manner."

Byrd said his desire in bringing the city up to state standards by having one CRA governing board is to not eliminate the CRA boards, but to make the advisory board switch appropriate representation of residents within the CRA districts.

"I believe in citizen input," he said. "We can run an effective operation with all public participation from businesses as well as citizens and that's what I would like to see."

Byrd said Wednesday's meeting is informational to see what that participation might entail.

"What's important is that there needs to be one board making decisions, and I feel that's the most efficient manner we can operate under," Byrd said. "But yes, we have to be prepared to do the work and if we, as a council, are not, then we might as well leave well enough alone."

Ward 2 Councilman Gene Brown said he has not made a decision and Ward 1 Councilman Gene Gallo has been quiet on the issue. He has, however, been critical of the DDA.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.

or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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