As outlined in Manatee County documents and explained at Thursday's Manatee Tiger Bay Club discussion, the new Southwest County Tax Increment Finance District holds great potential for improvements to residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors that have been declining for years. The sweeping plan remains a work in progress with some details yet to be developed and some concerns yet to be addressed.
The previous county strategy to revitalize smaller parcels and remove blight -- in the form of two community redevelopment areas -- failed to accomplish much as property values dropped, strangling the funding mechanism for the agencies. The county dissolved those two CRAs in favor of the much larger SWTIF, which launched on Oct. 1. The new district roughly stretches from Manatee Avenue south to the Sarasota County line and from Sarasota Bay west to U.S. 301.
As Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker noted at Tiger Bay, the two CRAs provided societal benefits but did not create value -- an essential ingredient to luring private investment and redevelopment.
SWTIF is not a top-down county operation. Residents and other stakeholders are expected to participate -- and must for this 30-year plan to succeed. The county's Neighborhood Services Department will reach out to residential and commercial stakeholders by individual zones to develop specific strategies.
Tax increment financing districts are a government tool to stimulate economic growth through public investments by capturing the additional property tax revenue from rising real estate values. Upon its creation date, the SWTIF established a base line of property values, and as those increase, half the revenue will be dedicated to the financing district. The other half will stay in the county's general fund. The county expects the district will receive around $400,000 its first year with a 3 percent increase in property values. Moving forward, SWTIF's revenues should snowball as projects are completed, thus raising surrounding property values and tax revenue. County commissioners could also elect to borrow against future revenues to hasten the pace of revitalization.
The money is earmarked for improvements to streets, utilities, parks, playgrounds, street lighting, sidewalks and other infrastructure; property acquisition; voluntary building repair and rehabilitation programs; events, and promotions that are designed to boost long-term growth.
In its vision statement, SWTIF intends to "support transportation mobility, encourage economic investment and redevelopment, maintain public safety, provide affordable housing options, transform area corridors into vibrant places, assist small business ... and partner with academic institutions to better integrate schools into the fabric of the community."
The key to all this is strong residential neighborhoods, so improvements to struggling ones are vital. As discussed at Tiger Bay, commercial follows residential as businesses are not attracted to weak neighborhoods. Upgrades in aesthetics and infrastructure and stronger code enforcement are priorities in the plan.
Most communities in southwest Manatee were built before modern subdivision standards were adopted, so they lack sidewalks, streetlights, parks, stormwater ponds and other attributes common in newer neighborhoods. The blighted Tamiami Trail from Tallevast south to the county line is one corridor with a strong SWTIF focus.
In adopting guidelines for future county growth in June 2013, commissioners rejected current policies that encourage low-density sprawl and discourage private investment in established urban areas. Currently, the county is rewriting its land development code, and the first phase should be ready for public hearings in late March.
That rewrite is essential to the success of the SWTIF. With redevelopment driven by the market, the county can encourage that with regulations that don't overly constrain developers and investors. Rules specifically designed for established urban areas might include flexible zoning code; lower impact fees (since services already exist there); and different setback and parking requirements.
All of this sounds very encouraging and proactive for a portion of the county that demands attention before further decline takes root.
While Hunzeker stated rules will be developed over time, there is concern that the lack of spending guidelines under the current county ordinance could create problems and even invite abuse. We'll reserve judgment on that with the expectation officials will establish guidelines soon -- before any improprieties could occur.