Checkers vs. Chess
By Greg Jackson
Yes, it sounds like a great idea to use Community Redevelopment Agency (“CRA”) funds to purchase interests in a parking lot to help boost economic development for downtown Apopka. Yes, it seems feasible to set aside a lion’s share of CRA funds to help small businesses increase revenues. And yes, it does not appear to disrupt the cosmos too much if persons living in underserved areas continue being underserved because they are unaware of resources. That is until the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) starts taking interest in your actions and wants to know why you are not following the clear intent of a statutory provision established to serve underserved communities, as oppose to predominately seeking to advance economic growth through business development.
With CRA’s in South Florida coming under growing scrutiny, with the Florida Legislature preparing to take a deeper look at the activities of CRA’s state-wide, and now with the FBI investigating a North Florida CRA, one has to ask the question if the Apopka CRA is playing checkers while the grand jury, legislature, and FBI are playing chess. If you have ever played checkers and chess, you know exactly what I mean here. With the game of checkers, the moves and strategy are somewhat simplistic. The goal is to simply get from point A (one side of the board) to point B (the other side of the board) following a simple predictable path. Chess, however, requires complex strategies, an understanding of each piece’s role and importance, as well as the uncanny ability to forecast your opponents, moves one-, two- or even five steps ahead.
The Apopka CRA has recently resumed operation after years of inactivity only to make predictable, simplistic moves; seeking to implement programs and initiatives that follow the same unfortunate path that is similar to CRA’s across the state that has garnered the attention of a grand jury, the Florida Auditor Generals Office, the Florida Legislature, FBI, watchdog groups, The Urban League, NAACP, etc. The path of the Apopka CRA, as well as other CRA’s, have even prompted a call for an inquiry into the activities of CRA’s, as well as talk of a possible class action lawsuit due to disparate treatment; sound familiar?
Conversely, certain entities that have concluded that Florida CRA’s are making the barest of efforts to fulfill the purpose and intent of Chapter 163, Part III, are making strategic, calculated moves to address the actions, or lack thereof, of those agencies that are tasked with reducing slum and blight. Though it sounds good, the primary intent and purpose of CRA’s are not to spark economic development; shocking to some I know. The primary intent is to address slum and blight through affordable housing programs, community policing innovations, improved sanitation and health conditions, etc. It cannot be ignored that any improvements in the aforementioned areas would more than likely lead to improving living conditions, with the potential to improve economic conditions as a derivative affect. I know this is the intended purpose, the grand jury knows this, the Florida Auditor General knows this, the Broward Inspector General knows this, and apparently, the FBI knows this. So why then, do the majority of CRA’s in the State of Florida, Apopka’s included, seem dumbfounded by this basic concept of following the intent and purpose of Chapter 163, Part III? Your guess is as good as mine.
Over the past several months, my focus and efforts to assist CRA’s with finding their footing to reduce scrutiny and questioning by the ones playing chess have been education based. Now, after meeting with legislators, community groups that serve underserved communities (i.e., Urban League), speaking at conferences and working with the Apopka Task Force on Violence through FEC, I have decided that my focus should be, and will become policy-based; in short, I am moving from checkers to chess. Much like the grand jury, Auditor General, Inspector General of Broward, legislators, and the residents most affected by the actions of CRA’s, I have concluded that if CRA’s will not change their course willingly, reform is warranted. It is not enough just to give a few seats at the table or on a CRA board. It is not enough to allocate small percentages of CRA dollars to community needs while pumping millions upon millions of dollars into business projects. It is not enough to devise a CRA planning using consultants who have little to no understanding of the community most affected. After 40 years of existence (20+ years for the Apopka CRA), and little to show in terms of affordable housing, community policing innovations, improved sanitary conditions, improved health conditions, etc., within the area’s most affected, it is time for real change with CRA’s in Florida if they are to remain in existence. It is time to stop playing checkers and time to start playing chess — 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.