For anyone unfamiliar with the project it is a new development, looking to build in the downtown district of Fort Walton Beach. It is a 120,000 sq ft mixed use project that will include a 90 room Hilton franchise hotel, restaurants, office/retail space and a public use parking garage for the downtown district. The center of much of the controversy is the parking garage portion of this project. It will contain a minimum of 349 parking slots. The project developers want exclusive use of 122 of the 349 parking slots for the Home2 Suites Extended Stay Hotel, a Hilton Brand and 15 for the Landmark Center Loft Condos, which are required by City of Fort Walton Beach, leaving the remaining 227 slots available for public use, so that potential patrons of the downtown district will have adequate parking to visit the various businesses our downtown has to offer. This project and its plans are not new to the City of Fort Walton Beach nor its administration. This project has been in the works for nearly 8 years in which time it has encountered resistance of various types either by past and present councilmen, and/or city staffers. The question then must be asked what type of resistance and why?
To understand the true nature of this debate one has to be informed to the particular nuances framed into the conversation by both sides. The project is slated to be built in what is known as a CRA district. CRA stands for (Community Redevelopment Area). Under Florida law (Chapter 163, Part III), local governments are able to designate areas as Community Redevelopment Areas when certain conditions exist. Since all the monies used in financing CRA activities are locally generated, CRA’s are not overseen by the state, but redevelopment plans must be consistent with local government comprehensive plans. Examples of conditions that can support the creation of a Community Redevelopment Area include, but are not limited to: presence of substandard or inadequate structures, a shortage of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, insufficient roadways, and inadequate parking. To document that the required conditions exist, the local government must survey the proposed redevelopment area and prepare a Finding of Necessity. If the Finding of Necessity determines that the required conditions exist, the local government may create a Community Redevelopment Area to provide the tools needed to foster and support redevelopment or the targeted area.
Where do funding or tools for the CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) and its activities come from? TIF (Tax Increment Financing) is a unique tool available to cities and counties for redevelopment activities. It is used to leverage public funds to promote private sector activity in the targeted area. The dollar value of all real property in the CRA is determined as a fixed date, also known as the “frozen value”. Taxing authorities, which contribute to the tax increment, continue to receive property tax revenues based on the frozen value. These frozen value revenues are available for general government purposes. However, any tax revenues from increases in real property value, referred to as “Increment,” are deposited into the CRA Trust Fund and dedicated to the redevelopment area.
What kind of activities is funded by the CRA? Examples of traditional projects include: streetscapes and roadway improvements, building renovations, new building construction, flood control initiatives, water and sewer improvements, parking lots and garages, neighborhood parks, sidewalks and street tree plantings.
The city must have redevelopment plans for the targeted area that is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. So what does the city of Fort Walton Beach’s redevelopment plan state concerning the targeted area? And what is the targeted area of Fort Walton Beach? The targeted area of Fort Walton Beach reaches north to Hugh Street and west to almost Memorial Pkwy and east to the Brooks Bridge. This area includes the downtown, uptown and midtown areas of Fort Walton Beach. The city redevelopment plans as adopted by the City Council in 2012 in summary states, “The downtown trend in property values and an increase in the number of vacant properties and foreclosures resulted in the CRA Board of Commissioners changing philosophy towards economic development and business retention. This change in direction/philosophy resulted in the need for an update to the 2007 CRA Plan to provide encouragement and support for business and economic development as well as the physical development of the City. .. Therefore, this 2012 CRA Plan update shall serve as a guide to future redevelopment activities in the Fort Walton Beach CRA over a five- to ten- year planning horizon, focusing on initiating programs and projects to stimulate private sector participation so that the community can eventually thrive on its own.”
As stated in Goal 2 of the 2012 Community Redevelopment Plan, “The goal of the infrastructure component is to improve the quality and availability of infrastructure throughout the CRA. Updated infrastructure is important for redevelopment in order to attract more businesses, residents, and visitors.
As stated in Goal 6 of the 2012 Community Redevelopment Plan, “The goal of the Economic Development component is to achieve economic stability through new and expanded business and employment throughout the CRA. Economic stability is the basis for success in the CRA; this makes it vital that objectives and strategies are developed to insure economic growth and development. To create this environment of stability, the CRA must promote business retention, business expansion, and attract new businesses.
Even Dr. Joyce Gossom during her tenor as Chair of the CRA is quoted as saying “The purpose of the CRA is to stimulate private sector participation in the development of this area, 2) expand economic base in the CRA area, and 3) develop joint public and private partnerships with qualified developers. “ She further explained that “Landmark is the first project the CRA has been presented with that fully meets every qualification that they have been trying to implement and incorporate in the CRA since its inception.” She now sits on the city council that is presently making the decision to move or not move forward in this partnership. One can only hope her understanding of the CRA and the City’s need to partner for all the stated reasons still stands.
What has been requested by the developers of the Landmark Project? All the City Councilmen seem to be in favor of the project as strictly a private sector endeavor, but have issue with the City’s partnership in the building or funding of the parking garage. It has been portrayed that the Project partners have solicited tax payer money for construction of the parking structure, but in all actuality what has been and continues to be requested is the use of TIF (Tax Increment Financing) the funding tool for CRA activities. Specifically what has been presented is that the TIF generated by the development of this project be committed to the payment of the parking garage structure over a predetermined period of time, removing the obligation of the City financially from the general fund standpoint. In other words it is not (The general tax payer money) being used or committed. Furthermore they present in their plan that if the project should not produce the TIF as projected it will NOT be the City who is left with the financial burden of this loan, but the investment group itself will absorb the cost.
The future of Fort Walton Beach is not something our local leaders should play politics with. Understanding the facts behind the argument is important for all of us as we hold our leaders accountable for the decisions they make concerning the welfare of our city and all who live and will ever live here. Some people are resistant to change, but the fact is that change is inevitable. Change is an absolute, and though we do not determine whether or not change occurs we can determine what type of change occurs. Over the past 20 years we have seen change. Fort Walton Beach was once listed as one of the top 10 small cities to live. It was one of the top cities in the panhandle in gross home income. It was at one time one of the top cities along the Emerald Coast that families sought to live and raise their children. Now we see families looking to such areas as Destin, Blue Water, and Crestview to live. Businesses in the downtown district are shutting doors every month. Fort Walton has become a blighted community amongst thriving communities in the western panhandle. This is change, but not the change we want to see continue. It takes leadership with vision to lead a city back to sustainable growth and a healthy future. We owe it to our children and children’s children to raise up a city out of the ashes of its former glory, and set it on course to once again become the place that provides a future and a hope.
What can you do? You can send an email to all the councilmen stating your support of such a project that will invigorate a dying downtown district and inoculate it with new life. Providing our downtown businesses with much needed parking for paying patrons who are looking for new places to wine, dine and have a good time. You can also call each of them leaving them messages of your support of the project. You can share this NOTE with all your facebook friends to inform them of what we are really facing as a city. I also invite EVERYONE to be in attendance next week as the project is given another hearing before City Council beginning at 6pm at City Hall. Please make sure they understand how they vote will determine how you vote in March. Hope to see you there Tuesday night February 12th!!!
Mayor Mike Anderson – (850) 862-5530 – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilman Bobby Griggs – (850) 240-4866 – email: email@example.com
Councilwoman Joyce Gossom – (850) 244-9525 – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilman John Mead – (850) 243-3135 – email: email@example.com
Councilman Trey Goodwin – (850) 837-3662 – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilman Bobby Nabors – (850) 499-5369 – email: email@example.com
Councilman C.H. Rigdon – NA – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilman Dick Rynerson – (850) 862-4004 email: email@example.com
You can also contact each councilman by visiting the city website City of Fort Walton Beach
There is currently a politically charged debate involving a proposed project in downtown Fort Walton Beach known as the Landmark Project. I’ve personally inserted myself into the conversation in an attempt to clarify the narrative that has been engineered to build a misleading perception to the general public concerning what is being submitted and requested by the private partners, of the city of Fort Walton Beach.