By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - A Winn-Dixie was at 1200 Deltona Blvd. just two years ago. You can still read the sign in the dirt it left behind.
Many of the other storefronts are empty here, too, particularly those immediately adjacent to the grocery store. Three years ago, it was the Dollar General that left for greener pastures.
"There were people who depended on this Winn-Dixie here," said Vice Mayor Paul Treusch, just before the first of two public meetings to explain the state brownfield incentives Deltona will be seeking for its titular plaza. "They would take their carts home and bring them back when it was time to go shopping again. They can't have that anymore. Now they have to drive miles away."
But some businesses have stayed. And many with homes encircling the center haven't left either.
A few dozen of he residents attended the hearing, along with a quorum of Deltona city commissioners, inside one of more than a dozen empty storefronts near the former grocery.
Chris Bowley, the city's planning and development director, explained how being declared a brownfield site requires specific pollution events but that establishing a brownfield area with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is different.
This designation requires only a perception of pollution, such as former and present dry cleaners in the plaza or how potentially dangerous mold has been spotted by city health officials in the former grocery store since it was vacated.
"With brownfield funding," Mr. Bowley said, "such contamination might more easily be remediated."
He allayed any potential fears for the residents that the designation might be applied to their properties.
"We've had calls," he said, "we've had walk-ins about that, and I just want to reiterate that this proposed (brownfield) area doesn't include anybody's residential property."
The primary function of the tool is a job creator, Mr. Bowley said. New businesses can receive up to $2,500 a year for every job created, up to five jobs or $25,000.
A few, like Gus Schmidt of adjoining Buccaneer Court, worried aloud about the potential for future development along the thin strip of woodland that separates his street from the back of the plaza.
"At 6 o'clock in the morning you hear somebody picking up a dumpster and you hear, 'bang bang bang,'" Mr. Schmidt said, "It's not nice. I mean, I'm retired. I don't have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. I would really not take kindly to people building back here," then he pointed to the strip behind the plaza on Mr. Bowley's map.
"Our intent is not to build anything," explained Mayor John Masiarczyk to those who voiced worry that new development was looming in the near future for the plaza. "Our intent is to do whatever possible to get the people with the money, the developers, to come in here and look at this place."
Louise Smith, of nearby 1137 Deltona Blvd., said whatever happens, she hopes the owner and city officials will quickly clean up any potential health hazards.
"(The former) Winn-Dixie has mold in the back of that building," Ms. Smith said. "Why hasn't the health department or someone said, 'OK, let's get this cleaned up. ... You're not going to get a tenant if there's mold there. It's not healthy."
But even she didn't want to use the word brownfield so loudly in public.
Mr. Bowley recommended three innocuous-sounding names that don't mention brownfield: the Deltona Economic Enhancement Region, the Deltona Boulevard Economic Opportunity Zone or the Deltona Economic Target Zone.
"I can see why somebody would want to change the name," said Charles Schultz, who lives along an adjacent street.
At their next regular meeting on Sept. 17, commissioners are expected to vote on a new name for the area and to sign onto the state brownfield program.
Lenore Reynolds, the property manager for plaza owner Bruce Strumpf Inc., said the owner is committed to working with the city to offer new tenants brownfield incentives.
"The owner is willing to sell the property," she said, "(but) that's not the goal. The goal is to work with the city."
Mayor Masiarczyk said the designation, whatever it ends up being called, will "give us an extra tool in our tool belt, let's say, to get some economic development ... in here."
The Deltona Plaza redevelopment efforts are at the heart of a broader effort to create a community redevelopment agency for this southwest sector of the city. DeBary and Orange City also are jostling for their own CRAs, and county leaders have said they are squeamish about adding any more than the 16 CRAS they have.
These use up $7 million in ad valorem taxes every year, which is primarily used to create incentives for redevelopment in those CRAs as well as infrastructure and aesthetic improvements.