Palmetto to Bradenton: CRA transition painful but worth it

PALMETTO -- As the Bradenton City Council seeks to take direct control of its city's community redevelopment agencies, members can look to their neighbors in Palmetto to see some of the benefits and challenges.

The benefits include a five-year focused effort to make improvements at the new Palmetto boat ramp and park; improvements to Sutton Park; lighting and landscaping; the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Park; streetscaping; and millions of dollars in partnership funding, as well as creating incentives to attract companies such as It Works! Global.

The challenges were many as Palmetto made the transition, but city officials say you only have to look at how the city is changing to know it was worth it.

Although Bradenton is more complicated with three CRA agencies -- one independent and two under the control of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority -- the

city at least has something of a road map from Palmetto's move that began in 2009, transforming an agency that was heading in the wrong direction into the award-winning CRA it has today.

The Bradenton council could vote this summer to abolish the advisory boards for the Bradenton CRA, the 14th Street West CRA and Central CRA and assume direct control of the agencies.

Last week's joint meeting between the Bradenton City Council, DDA and CRAs ended in confusion with little accomplished. Manatee County Commissioner Charles Smith, a former member of the Palmetto City Commission, said the meeting was familiar ground for anyone familiar with what happened in Palmetto.

"The bottom line is that elected officials control the money," he said. "Sometimes you have to reestablish that. The status quo will not move anything forward."

Change under Bryant

The transition was one of the first big moves made under Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant when she took office in 2008. Bryant said she saw the same angst expressed.

"The concerns were that they didn't understand the necessity to do it," said Bryant. "There needs to be a smooth relationship between the people who are accountable for the public dollars. It has to be cohesive to be effective."

There was a serious lack of knowledge of what CRAs can and can't do, Bryant recalls, as well as a lack of communication between the CRA board and the city commission. CRA Director Jeff Burton was a consultant for the city at the time of the transition, and he spent about a year studying CRA mandates in comparison to state statutes and city ordinances.

"The biggest concern in 2010 was the city was still using a plan from 1993," he said. "The first rule of a CRA is, 'If it's not in the plan, you can't do it,' and there were things that were being done that were not necessarily in the plan."

Burton said once the transition was completed, the CRA updated its plan to meet statutes and is currently working toward its next five-year plan. In its first five years as the city commission acting as the CRA board, it has won multiple awards.

But Burton said there is more to do.

"Are we perfect? Absolutely not," he said. "There are still things going on from 2009 that we are trying to correct. It takes time to get out of whack and it takes time to get it back. It's been a step-by-step process."

The key, he said, has been the willingness of the mayor and city commission, as well as city staff to educate themselves on what a CRA does.

"I wasn't known as the director of the CRA, I was known as the director of 'No,'", he said. "I would have to quote statute every time the commission asked why the CRA couldn't do this or that. Now, I sit in CRA meetings and hear the mayor or a commissioner quote chapter and verse of the state statute. That's a healthy sign that the leadership is taking the initiative, and that means we are heading in a very healthy direction."

Efficiencies promised

Bryant is CRA-certified and Vice Mayor Brian Williams is taking the classes, with other commissioners scheduled to attend. City staff members are taking the classes on their own just to be informed. Bryant said it takes that kind of commitment to reach the level of success Palmetto is seeing now.

"It's more efficient and now we have a clear-cut plan, strategy and direction that sets a pattern for us," she said. "It wasn't efficient under the old system. There was an information void and a lot of misinformation."

Some took the transition personally, Bryant said, but a CRA advisory board is still a key to the overall success. Burton said Bradenton needs to understand they are not alone in this as CRAs all over the state have or are making the transition. Bradenton is fortunate to have good CRAs in place, he added, because most CRAs across the state are mediocre at best.

"Their CRA boards have done some great things, so this is just a matter of housekeeping," he said. "There are CRAs in this state that can't even find their CRA plans. This is a natural progression, and they have some really good people in Bradenton that will get this straightened out."

Palmetto officials remember the tough times making the transition and meetings that were similar to Bradenton's recent session.

"It wasn't pretty when we went through this change," said Burton. "We had a lot of meetings like they had, but you have to go through it and get to the good stuff. You have politicians talking to business people and they do think differently, but that first meeting has to happen for people to have an opportunity to say what they need to say.

"So the first meeting can be a throwaway meeting," he added. "You aren't going to sit down and work everything out in one meeting. But it has to start there -- and they've done that."

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.