By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - Less than a year ago, city planners began a blight study to determine if the southwest section of the city qualified to have its own community redevelopment agency, which funnels excess property taxes into turning ravaged areas around.
At a recent workshop, Deltona city commissioners got their answer.
"We've determined that blight exists down there," said Chris Bowley, the city's director of development and planning services.
The study, or finding of necessity, is a requirement of the Volusia County Council if the city wants to form a CRA. The city had qualified planners on staff who conducted a study that found the area that qualifies with 12 of 14 standard blight study criteria. Cited as drawbacks: A lack of modern infrastructure; how the mostly commercial area is peppered with residential properties that have been chopped off by ever-widening roads in their front yards; and how a generally lackluster appearance seems to pervade.
"It's really a study of what's in disrepair," Mr. Bowley said, "and what we would bring to the county confidently to say that this passes your test for a CRA."
The study concludes, "Without the CRA and related financing tools needed to fund infrastructure upgrades," it states, "the subject area will continue to slide into disinvestment punctuated by a cycle of vacant and underutilized commercial space, unmaintained and dilapidated buildings, a less desirable housing stock and limited public services."
The 256-acre area involves five major commercial areas: from north to south, Saxon Boulevard, Normandy Boulevard, DeBary Avenue, Enterprise Road and Deltona Boulevard - a battered commercial loop from one Interstate-4 exit to another, with inexplicable patches of out-of-place residential blight.
While showing commissioners a presentation of the CRA plan, Mr. Bowley pointed to a front yard cut short by a widening of Deltona Boulevard, making it difficult for the residents to back out into traffic.
"Somebody would have to back up into a lane that somebody is traveling at 45 mph on," he said. "...It can be argued that there are many great locations to put a CRA in the city, but the oldest southwest area was a good place to start."
The goal is to establish a "front door" gateway that the city sorely lacks, he said, while providing jobs and added visibility from I-4. It's also important, he added, to address what county planners call infrastructure that is "functionally obsolescent," such as mismatched sidewalks or chopped-off driveways.
Another goal is to do something about Deltona Plaza, at the heart of the CRA district. This is where Winn-Dixie vacated a 44,000-square-foot store more than two years ago.
In response, city leaders also agreed at the workshop to sign on to the state's brownfield remediation program to offer financial incentives for future investment in the center., which has suffered some health concerns in recent years.
"You know about the mold conditions in there for people who would use that site," Mr. Bowley told commissioners. "Over time, that could contaminate the whole plaza. ... But this could become the center of something more than you see today."
Commissioner Heidi Herzberg, who represents the area, sees it that way. She believes the CRA and brownfield designation are key to turning this flagging area around.
"This can do nothing but help," Commissioner Herzberg said. "It's a tool for infrastructure and economic development, It's going to help the city redo some of its older, blighted areas that need it."
Commissioners told Mr. Bowley to put together a detailed capital improvement plan for the redevelopment area, which is another element of the city's application expected by county planners.
The public will get their say about the CRA and other redevelopment efforts at two upcoming community meetings: one at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at Deltona Plaza, 1200 Deltona Blvd, and another at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 at Deltona City Hall, 2345 Providence Blvd.
Mayor John Masiarczyk said the city will have to ensure they proceed carefully. Two of Deltona's eighbors, DeBary and Orange City, also are angling to create Community Redevelopment Areas, and county leaders have balked at adding more than 12 to their roster of CRAs, which take in about $7 million in surplus property taxes every year, and are found in nearly every city in the county.
"It may be a little bit of a hard sell," Mayor Masiarczyk said, "so we want to make sure we do everything (county leaders) want."