By Estella Fullmer Brown
For Hometown News
EDGEWATER -- With several issues of concern throughout the region, the mayors of Edgewater, Oak Hill and New Smyrna Beach decided to conduct a joint meeting of all three municipalities with commissioners and key staff members March 18.
"I think the last time we held a meeting like this was back in 2000," Oak Hill Commissioner Ron Engele said.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a Community Redevelopment Agreement, Indian River Lagoon conservation and stormwater problems, and the "Rail Trail" bicycle routes in Southeast Volusia County.
They kicked off the meeting with a status report on a CRA provided by Edgewater Economic Development Coordinator, Janet Shira. They began in 2008 with a strategic plan to revitalize the city, particularly along US 1. In 2010, they identified the areas they would like to have in the CRA area and filed a Finding of Necessity to Volusia County in 2011, according to Ms. Shira. By 2013 they hired a consultant to preview the details and conducted a blight study.
CRA funding from the county cannot be granted for just any area of the city. The funds are only available for areas considered blighted. There are 14 basic criteria the county looks for to determine if the area contains blight. At least two of those conditions must be met in order to be awarded a CRA grant. Some of the things they look at are the number of abandoned and derelict buildings, inadequate street layout, lack of parking, outdated building patterns, code enforcement violations and crime rates. The area mapped out along U.S. 1 by the city for their CRA met 11 of those conditions, according to the blight study performed by an outside research group.
"We are looking along U.S. 1 from our northern border with New Smyrna Beach south to Falcon Avenue, which is just past S.R. 442," Ms. Shira said.
The area includes 509 parcels and is 2.8 percent of the entire city. It also includes Park Avenue down to City Hall, the police department and the park.
"We envision the heart of the CRA at Park Avenue and U.S. 1 to be a new downtown," Ms. Shira said.
The plan includes single-and multi-family residences, shopping facilities and business space. They plan to improve sidewalks, roads, utilities and connecting properties while improving stormwater management and creating open space with parks and beautification elements.
"We are working with the county to develop the CRA and also closely with the historic preservation association and the Utilities Commission," Ms. Shira said. "We are looking at different funding possibilities in addition to grant money such as private and other investors."
"Once the area has been finished," Edgewater Mayor Michael Thomas said, "we will have a strict code enforcement policy in place to maintain the area as it's developed."
Ms. Shira stated it is a 40-year plan because it will likely take that long to get all the necessary funding to complete the CRA's goals. She said, however, if the city can complete the plan in less time, they would do so.
City officials believe the redevelopment and beautification of downtown Edgewater should increase tourism and boost business sales.
"This is an opportunity to support the local businesses," she said.
"We have three scenarios for funding possibilities," Ms. Shira said. "The most conservative estimates run at $52-53 million over 40 years with the city contributing a little over 50 percent and the county a bit less than 50 percent."
She did not go into details on the other possibilities, but stated they contained additional funds from private investors, which would shorten the time needed to complete the CRA. They decided to go with the conservative estimate for the purpose of developing the CRA which will give them an option of finishing it early.
They plan to submit their Finding of Necessity application to the county by the end of May and hope to get an answer by the end of the summer.
Edgewater Councilman Gene Emter said, "U.S. 1 is the main route and all of you have seen the kind of dilapidation in Edgewater as you drive up and down it. This CRA is, in my mind, the only way of funding this development. Without the CRA, I am afraid the whole area is going to continue to deteriorate. It is really our last chance to rejuvenate the U.S. 1 corridor and I hope it goes through because it is desperately needed."
Tony Otte, New Smyrna Beach Economic Development Director, gave a status report on where New Smyrna stands on its CRA. They have a CRA that was adopted in 1985 and ends in 2015 and they are in the process of applying for a new CRA since the current one was successful.
Many areas of downtown New Smyrna Beach and Flagler Avenue have already been remodeled and improved due to the grant money from the current CRA. Mr. Otte pointed out several of the successful renovations, such as the Canal Street Center, the new Hampton Inn on Flagler Avenue, and the makeover of streets and sidewalks in those areas that invite foot traffic and tourism to the local businesses and restaurants.
"What we didn't expect were the spin-offs from our CRA projects," Mr. Otte said. "Several private business owners adjacent to the blight areas used their own funds to remodel their buildings. Some of those successful renovations were the Canal Street Creamery, The Posh Pineapple, a brewery on Sams Avenue and the True Gas building on North Orange. We estimate $337,000 of repairs were made by the property owners."
The new CRA for New Smyrna Beach will largely be along U.S. 1 and around the airport with Canal and U.S. 1 being the heart of this agreement. According to Mr. Otte, it will still include the North Causeway and Flagler Avenue as well as the old Daytona Beach Community College and Industrial Drive along the airport. He cited the abandoned Mullinax Ford car lot and the soon to be abandoned Chevrolet car lot along with the ABC store and a few other businesses.
"Moved to S.R. 44 seems to be the mantra for the city these days," joked Mr. Otte.
The new CRA for New Smyrna Beach comprises 8 percent of the city at around 2002 acres and meets several of the requirements for a blight area, including code enforcement violations, crime rate and derelict, run-down properties. They estimate it will cost a total of at least $135 million and take 30 years to complete.
The second part of the meeting was turned over to Tray Rice, National Estuary Program Director of the St. Johns River Water Management District. He provided some background statistics on the Indian River and an overview of its status concerning the river ecology and health of the estuary.
City officials discussed their responsibilities and plans to combat pollutants entering the river and posed several questions to Mr. Rice. The study being conducted by the St. Johns Water Management District should provide details on what is causing the algal superblooms that are in turn causing the seagrass in the bottom of the lagoon to die and may uncover the reason for the deaths of so many dolphins, manatees and brown pelicans.
Once the study is complete, the cities may look into new legislature to help control storm water runoff and reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the river.
"The biggest problem we have is lawn fertilizer and pesticides," Mr. Rice said. "People need to realize they don't have to fertilize all year-round."
He stated that applying fertilizer only two times a year is sufficient, especially if people are growing the right types of 'water wise' grass in their lawns.
"We need to clean the water up before it gets to the river," Mayor Thomas said. "It's not going to be cheap and it's not going to be done overnight."
All agreed the city officials need to do whatever needs to be done to keep the river healthy.
"We have to stop talking and start doing something," urged Mayor Thomas. "Everyone needs to help. We have to protect this environment."
The last part of the meeting gave a brief overview of the possible routes in New Smyrna Beach to connect the bike trails to the existing bike trails west of Interstate 95. The state is working on a trail system that will allow people to safely travel by bicycle from Tampa to Southeast Volusia. New Smyrna Beach is reviewing three possible routes to connect downtown and cross Interstate 95. The plan is estimated to take 10 years and cost more than $2 million to build about 2.16 miles of bike trail (including a bridge over I-95 in one of the options or a bridge at Turnbull Bay Creek in another option.) They are trying to iron out ways of funding the project and studying the results of a feasibility study that was just completed at the end of 2013.