By Dan Harkins
DEBARY - For a year, Sid Vihlen has been studying whether a community development agency is something the city needs to reinvigorate its tired central business corridor along U.S. 17-92.
The determination that he and the Economic Development Advisory Committee he chairs delivered to the DeBary City Council last week during a workshop: It's the only thing that will help.
In response, council members told City Manager Dan Parrot to assemble a plan by the council's next regular meeting on July 11 that would lay out precisely how to proceed with forming a CRA, which uses surplus property taxes from the district to redevelop and beautify its most blighted areas.
Ultimately, Volusia County Council would expect commissioners to have a city planning firm craft an updated blight study and redevelopment plan for the area along 17-92, from Highbanks Road on the north to Dirksen Road on the south.
What's there now, Mr. Vihlen said, is "a hodgepodge left by the '50s and '60s."
"I'm thrilled to death," he said after the workshop, in the parking lot of a new City Hall in the center of the planned CRA district. "The greatest legacy this current city leadership can leave is starting a project to redevelop 17-92 and the image of the city of DeBary. Right now, there's nothing pretty about driving through here."
The county currently hands over about $7 million to 16 CRAs in nine communities. County Councilwoman Pat Northey recently told Hometown News that the county might hold off on creating any new CRAs until a few others sunset in a year or two.
That didn't stop Orange City from moving forward last month with a resolution expressing to the county council its desire to form a CRA.
Mr. Parrott urged DeBary leaders to be expedient about forming their own CRA, since some standing in line might be required.
"If you're going to do it," he said, "this is the time to do it."
The time to do it, many believe, was decades ago when other cities like DeLand and New Smyrna Beach created their CRAs. Those districts are now enjoying renaissances of sorts.
In places like Orange City and DeBary, though, some of the more vocal residents feared the designation "blighted" that comes with a CRA's creation. A CRA district proposed for DeBary's central corridor a decade ago was shot down, Mr. Vihlen said, because it included both commercial and residential areas.
Councilwoman Lita Handy-Peters, who sat on the Economic Development Advisory Committee when the first CRA effort was nixed, said residents were up in arms about labeling their homes in a negative light.
"It was a World War III," she said, repeating another councilman's remembrance of the time. "And I think part of that was because (the advisory committee) didn't engender goodwill from the community when we used the word blighted."
She and Mr. Vihlen insisted that this new CRA push would include only the commercial corridor.
The council also decided to join the Florida Redevelopment Association for $275.
Councilman Nick Koval said the improvements, which might not be realized for a decade or more if the CRA plan is approved by the county council, wouldn't just be aesthetic but also might include infrastructure like sewers.
"You can't just put lipstick on a pig," he said.