By Greg Jackson
The other day I had an interesting thought: What if Rip Van Winkle fell asleep under a tree in the area designated as the Apopka Community Redevelopment Agency (“CRA”) district in 1993; would he have awoken 24 years later to a place he did not recognize due to all of the improvements and booming small business growth? Or, would he find it in the same condition? I surmise that Rip would have awoken a bit relieved to see that not much had changed. Sure there would be more people, newer model cars, and some better-paved roads. But, the living conditions, deteriorating structures, sanitation issues, shortage of affordable housing, lack of community-based programs to deter crime, etc., would have welcomed him as he awoke from his deep slumber.
Then, I figured that good ole’ Rip Van Winkle would have also been a bit upset when he realized that over a period of 20-plus years the Apopka CRA had failed to use funds designated to improve underserved communities. Rip would have found out that much like himself, the Apopka CRA had slumbered a bit and when it woke up instead of making up for lost time by focusing on the people who had been ignored in the past, the CRA felt it better to use much-needed funds for a parking lot and more law enforcement, things that the City should handle out of its budget.
For the same reasons that Rip would have been upset waking up to a CRA that failed to use funds for over 20 years to redevelop an underserved community, many legislators and residents are now upset with CRA’s across the State of Florida. Because CRA’s continue to use its funds to promote and support business interests while residents within CRA districts continue to live in poor conditions, leadership in Tallahassee is looking to crack down on CRA’s senseless and uncaring use of funds; and rightfully so. Why? Because CRA’s are failing miserably at revitalizing underserved communities and they are not taking into consideration all factors involved. Conversely, CRA’s are more concerned with increasing business development projects, beautifying private structures, partially or significantly funding private business ventures, while never actually addressing the actual reason Chapter 163, Part III was brought into existence – people.
Nearly 40 years after CRA’s were established to aid underserved communities, Miami-Dade Grand Jury, Broward Inspector General, Florida’s Auditor General, certain legislators, watchdog groups and even the FBI, have awoken like Rip Van Winkle. They have looked around at the numerous CRA districts and asked: “what have CRA’s been doing all this time with taxpayers’ dollars.” Yes, there has been development. Yes, some housing has gone up. Yes, some paint has been splattered on some walls; but, for the most part, the slum and blight that legislators identified and sought to improve in 1969 still exists today in neighborhoods and small businesses are struggling to survive. As an example, the Apopka CRA has given the UCF Incubator close to $1 million dollars over the span of several years. Can anyone tell me how
many jobs the UCF Incubator has brought to Apopka? Can anyone say exactly how many businesses the UCF Incubator has helped? Heck, can anyone tell me exactly what the UCF Incubator does or how it helps the Apopka community at all? But yet and still, the Apopka CRA supports the UCF Incubator and justifies its position not to aid small businesses because it says the UCF Incubator is in place to do just that; really?
This is a very sad tale and if not based on real life, like the story of Rip Van Winkle would almost seem destined for a happy ending. But not in this instance, and that is due to the villain that has found its way into this tale of poorly run CRA’s — the Florida Redevelopment Association (“FRA”). Instead of encouraging CRA’s to return to their true intent, FRA is doubling-down on its position of “business-first-people-whenever,” and it is telling CRA’s to keep doing what they have been doing. Instead of bringing new ideas to the table to help ensure the continued existence of CRA’s, FRA has isolated itself and its members from groups and people seeking to help and offering guidance. Instead of encouraging CRA’s to self-correct themselves and get on a path that could show legislators, watchdog groups, residents, etc., that CRA’s are committed to fully addressing the issues of slum and blight, FRA has told its members to highlight projects that increase revenue in CRA districts, many of which ignore “slum.” Interestingly, I have been told that officers of FRA wonder if I am for or against CRA’s; but they never pick up the phone to call and ask me directly. Well, let me answer that question this way and pose another. I am for CRA’s operating in the manner in which they were intended and will fight for their existence so long as that occurs. My question, however, is this: Is FRA in favor of CRA’s addressing all aspects of Chapter 163, Part III, or just interested in pushing forward its agenda? It is my estimation the FRA, as with any other clueless villain, only sees what it wants to see as success (i.e., the money piling in and buildings going up); but, FRA fails to see that lives and living conditions are not succeeding under their model, and after 40 years that is no longer acceptable – in my humble opinion.
Greg Jackson is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida, a military veteran, current Orange County District 2 Representative on the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and General Counsel for the Community Redevelopment Agency. He has been as an active member of the Central Florida community for nearly 20 years. He was most recently a candidate for the Florida House District 45 seat.