By Greg Jackson
This past week, when I heard about the most recent vote by the Apopka Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to allocate one million dollars ($1,000,000.00) for the purchase and repair of a parking lot – in effect ignoring the blatant disrepair and deplorable conditions of the other residents and businesses that make up 90% of the CRA district (my estimate) – I decided I should close my mind and be asclueless as the people who make up Apopka’s CRA Board. To expend that amount of money with not even a single public meeting in the community most affected, a la Errol Estates, or seeking any input from the folks most affected by this decision, in my mind is not only irresponsible, but exactly the reason why CRA’s in Florida will once again be a topic of discussion at the next legislative session. When I tell you that the actions of the Apopka CRA are being watched very closely and reported to the legislature, trust me, the actions of the Apopka CRA are being watched very closely and reported to key committee members with the Florida Legislature; and, the conversation is far from great. Even other CRA’s are being warned not to do what Apopka is doing because of the longterm implications for the existence of CRA’s.
This continued disregard for doing what is morally right in connection with the purpose and intent of Chapter 163, Part III, has even caused me to change my position a bit about the continued existence of CRA’s, let me explain. When I started the investigation against the for-profit school industry in the State of Florida as an Assistant Attorney General, the Florida Attorney General asked me directly in a small, closed strategic meeting if for-profit schools should be banned in Florida. My response was very clear, I believed that for-profit schools served a purpose and aided those who could not fit their life style (i.e., single parent, at-home-parent, older students, etc.) in to a traditional university or college setting to get a better education for advancement, both personally and professionally. So while I identified some serious issues with how for-profit schools operated, I saw the benefit and advocated for their continued existence despite those issues. That approach worked well for the students, as well as the industry.
As to CRA’s, however, with CRA Boards like the one in Apopka, I do not see how they benefit or serve the purpose for which they were established. The Apopka CRA Board appears to be clueless, careless, and heartless when it comes to the overarching needs of the community. Furthermore, the Board is led by an unwavering director who has determined that his way is the only way. The current CRA director not only makes decisions without holding meetings with the residents and businesses within the CRA district to “triage” the most pressing needs, but when asked to meet to discuss such issues, he goes radio-silent. In addition to not considering other feasible alternatives for spending $1,000,000.00, he does not respond to requests to present those alternatives to the CRA Board. This callous response to efforts to work together has led to a CRA Board that sits and accepts any and every recommendation by the director, without putting on their “thinking-caps” and asking if “this really is the best use of these funds.” Even when a business owner stated that South Apopka needed to find money elsewhere because the CRA money needed to go towards the purchase of the parking lot for the businesses continued use and benefit, not a single Board member, save one, pointed out the hypocrisy in that logic. Instead Board members said they saw the long-term benefit of using a million dollars for a parking lot, but no one thought to ask how $1,000,000.00 could have benefited the majority of the residents and businesses in the CRA District overall. Think about the impact to all residents and businesses within the CRA District if starting back in 1993 funds were directed to address “slum” and “blight”; I bet South Apopka would more closely resemble North Apopka by now and the CRA would have fulfilled its purpose and not be needed.
I have said it before, yes, the Apopka CRA can find a way to spend money on a parking lots, but just because you can do something, does that mean you should do it? For instance, if I see a man drowning in a pond, although there is no legal obligation for me to assist him, should I leave a human being drowning? In other words, just because I can let him drown, should I let him drown? But here is the difference, the Apopka CRA actually has a legal obligation to address “slum” and “blight” within the CRA District, but it is not fully meeting its obligation. They will argue that it is because it does not have affordable housing or small business initiatives in its CRA Plan; well news flash – you can change the plan, just like you changed the Plan in 2017 to add the parking lot purchase and repair. This is not rocket science.
In looking at what is coming down the pike with the upcoming Apopka election, I have very little confidence that anyone will be left on the CRA Board who will speak out for those with the most need in the CRA District, particularly since only one Board member, who has decided to hang up his cleats, is the only one who pushed back against the heartless decision to ignore thousands of residents only to appease 12 or so business owners. For what it’s worth the residents and business owners within the CRA District, are better off bringing ice cream to the next CRA Board meeting, sitting on the front row and watching for themselves just how little they matter to the Apopka CRA – 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.