Bradenton City Council on wrong path with possible takeover of Community Redevelopment Agencies

Bradenton's City Council should craft a concrete outline acceptable to the public before proceeding with the dissolution of the governing authority of the city's three community development agencies and the Downtown Development Authority. Community engagement and buy-in are vital.

The rush to put the council in direct control of those important economic and neighborhood improvement tools continued Wednesday with a unanimous decision to proceed to a final public hearing and vote on June 24.

The council lacks a concrete and comprehensive strategy and detailed plan to date, only the fervent goal of seizing total control of city's three CRAs and abolishing the DDA, which oversees two of the CRAs (the downtown Bradenton and 14th Street West agencies; the third, the Central Community Redevelopment Agency, covers neighborhoods along Ninth Avenue East).

This is a major mistake by an elected body sworn to serve the public. This latest action ignores taxpayers, and many business leaders are clamoring for a voice in the proceedings -- the Manatee Chamber of Commerce among them.

Community engagement has been the hallmark of DDA activities for years. The greatest success came with the numerous public gatherings and ideas that led to the formation of Realize Bradenton and the subsequent development of Riverwalk, the city's crown jewel. Will the council continue this tradition? That doesn't appear to be the case with the CRA issue.

Resident and business community input should rank high on the list of council concerns. They've earned a seat at the table and deserve more respect from the council.

The CRA citizen advisory boards are valuable assets with top business people providing ideas and guidance on agency projects. These are intelligent volunteers giving their time and talent to serve the city and its residents.

The latest DDA projects focus on improvements to the Village of the Arts and nearby 14th Street West, the former a rising and key economic power and the latter the southern gateway into Bradenton. Admittedly, blighted neighborhoods south of the village need attention, and DDA members have plans to address those needs.

Would the council embrace those ideas or cast them aside with direct responsibility of the CRAs?

Will there be a citizens advisory board under a new governance? With financial, development and other experts who hold valuable skill sets?

As Mayor Wayne Poston said earlier this month in Herald reporter Mark Young's ongoing and detailed coverage of this issue: "The problem I have is if you change the role of the CRA, you kill collaboration and deny citizen participation."

That should not happen.

While Councilman Bemis Smith proposes the creation of an economic development department to replace the DDA and retaining the agency's advisory board, the fate of his plan is unknown. There's no written plan, just ideas floating out there. And Smith is the only one to propose something.

Why put the cart before the horse? Yet one council member, Harold Byrd Jr., publicly supported that very notion at Wednesday's meeting. How is that a good idea?

Councilman Gene Gallo advanced the justification for the takeover this way: "Those (CRA) boards are not responsible for the taxpayers of this city."

We must remind Gallo that the council currently has the final say on CRA expenditures of tax increment funds and can veto projects. Plus, the DDA presents its annual budget to council for review and approval.

The council already holds the ultimate authority and is thus accountable to taxpayers. Gallo's rationale doesn't hold water.

Palmetto's strong success with the city commission's takeover five years ago is instructive, though the change proved difficult, even painful.

But the results stand out: improvements to Sutton Park; a new boat ramp on the Manatee River downtown; and the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Park, all among the most visible.

But Palmetto's CRA was broken before the takeover with little progress on big initiatives.

Downtown Bradenton has blossomed, and the DDA deserves major credit. The council has not convincingly explained how the current system is broken. The public deserves details, not generalities and false arguments.

In a nutshell, the City Council should take a studious approach and not rush into a vote. The public must be engaged in the process.

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