The future of the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area in Sarasota has been a point of contention between city and county leaders for years, generating conflict and feeding a well-established narrative about two local governments not seeing eye to eye. So it was a bit jarring in September when County Commissioners voted to let the issue die and hardly anyone noticed.

At a hearing setting the budget for the 2015–2016 fiscal year, with a resolution listed on the meeting agenda as item 2C and described simply as a resolution “relating to the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area located in the City of Sarasota,” commissioners voted unanimously to let the Downtown CRA sunset in November 2016, 30 years after it was created. The item was written as such that no city officials even showed up to argue the case for the CRA’s continued existence; they didn’t realize for another two days that a vote in fact had been held to just let it die. “We need to cease one effort before we start another,” said County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. 

City officials have been reeling from the vote ever since, concerned that the funding mechanism that led to groundbreaking improvements in downtown credited with turning the city core from an abandoned ghost town to a widely praised pedestrian paradise would now draw to an inauspicious close with work still to be done. “We don’t just decide we’re not going to have that discussion anymore,” balked City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie.City officials will continue pushing to rekindle the conversation into the new year, they say, lobbying for further consideration of the matter straight through the end of September, when the matter truly must be decided for good. But officials at the city and county level have also started discussing what can be done to address blight in the region with or without the CRA, and all indications point toward the latter scenario. 

Well Worn Tool

The use of a CRA as a redevelopment tool dates back in Florida to 1969, when the first law was passed allowing for the creation of special districts where tax increment financing could be used to improve a region. Jurisdictions set a baseline property value for all land within the designated area and then as property values go up as a result of investment in the region, the tax revenue generated from property value above the base amount would be earmarked for funding the CRA. Local governments throughout the state immediately saw promise in this methodology and soon found success. Indeed some of the most notable redevelopment efforts in the state, including Ybor City in Tampa and Church Street in Orlando, benefited from the program.

But CRAs have proven controversial as well, with accusations of abuse and questions about exactly what constitutes redevelopment spending. In the City of Sarasota for example, many expressed frustration as city officials in the past spent CRA funds to staff extra police positions downtown. And many Downtown CRA supporters in 2006 were displeased when officials decided that a second CRA established for Newtown would be allowed to benefit from tax increment funds generated downtown.

At the county level, accusations of inequity have been leveled for years, suggesting it wasn’t in the broader community’s interest for revenues generated in Downtown Sarasota to have this designation while other improvements outside CRA boundaries had no sort of funding source dedicated to improvements. In 1986, county officials went along with the creation of the Downtown CRA, and would later create other such districts in places like Englewood, but in recent years, county leaders soured on the experiment. County Commissioner Christine Robinson said many neighboring counties have seen high portions of revenue set aside for CRAs at the expense of other areas and could foresee Sarasota suffering the same fate if CRAs are allowed to continue perpetually. “We need to be very careful if we ever continue with another CRA,” she says.

But for many of those who feel the revitalization enjoyed downtown has enhanced the community as a whole, it looks like a mistake to let the CRA simply go away. Andy Dorr, chairman of an ad hoc Downtown CRA Extension Committee appointed in 2014, has been disappointed by the county stance. While Dorr through the years has been an outspoken critic when the city spent CRA revenue on items that didn’t permanently improve downtown, he noted that significant efforts like enhancements at Five Points Park might not have been possible without the funding mechanism. And the way tax increment financing works, the longer a district stands the more benefits come. “I’m not aware of other major tools sanctioned by the State of Florida and used widely in practice that allow you to raise the kind of tax increment revenue and give the sanctioned ability and the control that a CRA has,” he says. 

What Now?

City and county officials, of course, have quibbles beyond tax districts. A joint meeting between the Sarasota City and County commissions held in November had an agenda dedicated entirely to dealing with another point of contention between the two bodies—namely homelessness—but Eddie wasn’t going to let the chance go by to raise the issue of the CRA anew. “We have got to have one to be able to do some projects financially,” she says. While some suggest downtown is no longer a region of blight, Eddie notes many projects expected to be funded with CRA dollars are still on the books. These include high profile matters like redeveloping the Sarasota Bayfront, an effort generating a great deal of attention now thanks to the work of the Bayfront 20:20 group. The list also includes critical public safety projects like the expansion of a jail and justice center.

County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo says he would love to rekindle conversations about a CRA. While he voted to allow the CRA under its current structure to expire, a move that disappointed many of the former Sarasota city commissioner’s supporters, he said a newly structured CRA could still prove a viable tool. “I would very much like to discuss that and what county participation would look like,” he says. “I’m more curious than anybody what that would look like.” Caragiulo has suggested that perhaps a new CRA could be established using baseline property values for today, with boundaries that focused not on downtown as a whole but on those areas most in need of attention.

That approach, though, has encountered resistance on both sides. Dorr and Eddie both note that in Newtown it will take a decade for any tax increment financing to be generated based on today’s property values. Meanwhile, some county commissioners feel establishing any new CRAs will only prevent enhancements intended to improve the entire community.

County Commissioner Charles Hines said there are options worth exploring with a CRA, and the city may want to set one up that includes the Bayfront and other potential redevelopment areas in such a district. Yet he fears that too many CRAs established in the county will hurt funding for day-to-day obligations. Letting the Downtown CRA expire, meanwhile, will free up funding in the county general fund for general uses. “We can talk about redoing the Bayfront and building a new aquarium. That’s the fun stuff,” Hines says. “But sometimes we have got to say that today we need to replace a chiller. And that costs how many millions? But that’s your main job, and you have do that before you go to the other stuff.” 

Mayor Willie Shaw says though that some of the problems with the existing CRA can be cured without letting the district expire. “I very much thought this discussion would continue,” he says. Shaw sent a memo to Sarasota County commissioners suggesting that the city was willing to change governance of the CRA to allow more county oversight, for example including two city and county commissioners on a CRA board as opposed to leaving spending decisions entirely to the Sarasota City Commission. 

The CRA is not the only way to set aside taxes for community improvement. Sarasota downtown leaders in 2009 successfully pushed for the creation of a Downtown Improvement District where commercial property owners in a compact area downtown pay a special tax, and all money generated in this way gets spent on enhancements in the same small area of town. The district works similar to the popular St. Armands Business Improvement District.

The success of the DID, which includes roundabout beautification and further improvements at Five Points Park, has encouraged leaders to explore expansion of that district. An ad hoc committee right now is exploring including a bigger part of downtown and perhaps encompassing the Rosemary District as well. And if interest exists among those living downtown, the tax may also get extended to residential properties.

Of course, the scale of the DID is much less than that of the CRA. In the 2013–14 budget, total funds available for the DID were just under $358,000, while the Downtown CRA this year is expected to raise $14.5 million. And while the Newtown CRA won’t expire until 2047, it has yet to raise any funding at all, something that makes city officials concerned about starting the clock anew. But it may be that before any redevelopment can start up again, the first things to get developed will have to be new and viable ways to pay for the project without the Downtown CRA in place.