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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

Unequal Opportunity for Big Money CRA Grants Councilman Jake Hill Votes "No"

Pt II: The CRA votes

LAKE CITY, FL – On Monday night, April 17, back before the Community Redevelopment Authority (the City Council) was the "Façade Grant Incentive" for Double Eagle, LLC, which was tabled on April 3 because of questionable public notice. Lake City CRA Tables $45,000 Facade Grant Request. Mayor Witt gave a brief explanation before the item was put back on the table.

Questions

Long time Lake City resident and downtown supporter Sandra Smith asked if the grant before the CRA had the same parameters as the Façade Grant.

City Manager Johnson answered, "The Facade Grant is a little $5,000 policy. This is like an apple and an orange... This will be the third grant of this nature in the last 4 years... The parameters of this are set by what the CRA Advisory Committee vets in the request process and what they recommend to the CRA. This got nothin' to do with the little Facade Grant Policy that you're referring to."

The Façade Grant Policy is the only written policy of the CRA.

Mr. Johnson continued, "The cap is typically a percentage and typically it does not exceed about 15%. It's based on what they ask for. It's based on what the City's CRA TIF fund account balance is at and what the council decides to give."

There are no City documents that explain this grant.

Ms. Smith followed up, "I've never heard of this grant or seen the language on it... people were asking ... I thought I'd come and ask you."

City Manager Johnson responded, "The City has done this before... If you go to the rules of the CRA, which is grounded in Florida statute 163, it states in there that the county or city, as the CRA, should be consistent with the needs as a whole in rehabilitating properties like this. And you can do it by giving incentives to private enterprise to put up the rest of the money... You should know. You participated in our CRA Master Redevelopment plan. If you go and read that plan it talks about these kinds of things."

As mentioned in Part I, the Master Plan found that Lake City needed to "prepare a grant feasibility study for public projects including: roads, utilities, streetscapes, parks, and law enforcement, particularly targeting potential projects eligible to receive funding through federal government funding programs."

Additionally, the Master Plan found that the CRA or the City (they are the same) needed to "develop one, three, and five-year work programs for budgetary and administrative purposes, and, contact affected property owners to determine their level of interest in participating in proposed redevelopment activities."

The results of these recommendations appear to be nonexistent. Under the direction of City Manager Johnson, other than the Façade Grant process, there are no written applications or grant procedures in place.

Links:
Lake City Redevelopment Plan
Observer notes on the Plan

Ms. Smith followed up asking how the public knew the grant existed and how they could apply for it.

City Manager Johnson answered, "The public has been informed that such a grant exists, because it's on a case by case basis and it's very infrequent."

Mr. Johnson continued, "This is the third one since 2012. People that do these kinds of things are familiar with CRA's and how it works."

City Councilwoman and Community Redevelopment Advisory Chairperson Melinda Moses added, "I think some of the questions I got were because there were facade issues. People got confused with that."

Mr. Johnson added, "The CRA Incentive Program is designed to advance redevelopment of the downtown of this [the CRA] district by private enterprise."

The CRA Incentive Program
What and where is it?

Your reporter followed up, "I was on the CRA website today looking for any mention of a program. How would anybody know... that this program was available? How would they know to even draw up a business plan? There is no grant application. There's no clearing house. People just show up. So how would they know there is a program and how many people ... were turned down, which would show that people knew there was a program?"

Mayor Witt responded, "Most people that are going to do a large development like the Blanche, or the Marion Street [Deli], or this program and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into it, they would talk to the City Manager -- say what's available? It's not like there is a program sitting out there... it's all about developing through the master plan."

Your reporter followed up, "I don't see anything that mentions the redevelopment program where you can come in based on how much money the CRA has in the bank. Due process would be everybody has a right to apply... Where is this program that Mr. Johnson spoke about that explains that people do a business plan -- buy a building or contemplate buying a building -- show up at the CRAC and then get approved and then come to you and then get approved for tens and tens of thousands of dollars. Where is that program?"

Mayor Witt compared CRA development to the Target or HAECO development. The Target Distribution Center is just north of town and came to Columbia County via the state. It has been plagued by the nonexistent workforce development policies of the County and the School District.

HAECO, formerly TIMCO, the aircraft maintenance facility located at the Lake City airport, has also been and is plagued by workforce development problems and other City issues and is diverting some of its business out of Lake City to its other locations.

Mayor Witt concluded, "It's just development and the City and the County and the CRA and all these agencies work with these private groups to make the community better. I don't know that there is anything through the County, the City, or any other city that deals with these kinds of unique situations."

The Vote

Councilwoman and CRAC Chairperson Melinda Moses made the motion to approve the $45,000 Façade [Construction Incentive Grant] for Double Eagle. City Councilman George Ward, whose building benefited from one of the three big money grants, was out of town. City Councilman Jake Hill was the only "no" vote.

After the meeting your reporter asked Mr. Hill the reason for his "No" vote.

Mr. Hill told the Observer, "Information for this grant could not be found anywhere. I believe that everyone should have an equal chance to apply for CRA funds."

Epilogue

Other cities and counties do have well defined economic and Community Redevelopment Agency programs with procedures, grant applications and meaningful and informative websites.

Ocala is a prime example: See "Feel Downtown" and the Ocala Economic Development website.

Lake City downtown development information is found here. An image of the Lake City CRA website (April 19, 2017) is here.

Columbia County/Lake City Florida: home of Florida's quintessential good ole' boys. It's who you know.

The legend continues.

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