When the W192 Development Authority meets this week, Executive Director David Buchheit will give board members the facade improvement grant program they asked for.
The authority had a limited facade grant program in 2014 that was funded by the county's Community Development Block Grant. That program wasn't successful, largely because the restrictions on spending the federal money made the application process too onerous, Buchheit said.
The new program would utilize some of the funding set aside for hotel consulting studies to offer business owners up to $15,000 in matching funds for painting and other exterior improvements that bump up a building's curb appeal.
But there are some cases where a coat of paint or a new awning would be the economic development equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Buchheit said that when dealing with vacant and blighted buildings, the authority's grant money could be more effective if used to pay for demolitions.
When they established the redevelopment district, county officials identified 77 acres of blighted property just in the vicinity of US 192 and Interstate 4. Buchheit estimates it would cost more than $9 million to demolish all those buildings, but it would "completely eliminate the condition of blight."
As a redevelopment director in Collier County, Buchheit said his agency issued bonds and used the proceeds to buy properties in the district and demolish the blighted buildings. Then they put them back on the market. "When we demolished those buildings, we got rid of a huge amount of crime," Buchheit told GrowthSpotter.
He has suggested offering demolition grants to property owners, as well as facade improvement grants to operating businesses. It's the very definition of "flexible assistance."
The idea is still in its infancy. Buchheit said he expect the development authority to act first on the facade grant and hotel consulting grants before moving forward on a demolition program. "We're still in the 'kicking the tires' phase," he told GrowthSpotter.
But if the board endorses the idea, he already has a few properties in mind that would be serious candidates for demolition. The first would be the boarded-up medical clinic at the corner of Hiawatha Circle and US 192.
Another candidate for demolition could be the former Castle nightclub at 4710 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Hwy. The 20,000-square-foot nightclub, which was built as a Haunted Mansion attraction in the 1987, has been closed for two years and is on the market for $4 million.
Buchheit said the building itself is an eyesore, but it sits on 8+ acres of land in the heart of the county's tourism corridor. "If that castle wasn't there - if it was just grass - I can't help thinking it would be easier to sell," he said.
It's a completely different approach than most Community Redevelopment Agencies. St. Cloud's CRA, for example, just voted to revamp its grant program from a facade improvement grant into one that will pay for half the cost of interior renovations and other site improvements.
St. Cloud redevelopment specialist Eileen Kelly said that under the new program, any property owner inside the city's CRA district is eligible for the grants. It could still be used for painting, but it also could pay for a new roof, electrical or plumbing upgrades or floors.
"It has to be 'brick and mortar' type expenses," Kelly said. "It can't be anything movable - like furniture or a big-screen TV - and it can't be to pay for operating expenses."
Kelly said the City Council, which doubles as the Community Redevelopment Agency, allocated $200,000 in the FY2016 budget for the grant program. The maximum available funding ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, based on the square footage of the building.
"Over the last five years, we've never met the $200,000 limit, so I'm not concerned about us running out of money," Kelly said.