“Tragedy is when I cut my finger,” said Mel Brooks. “Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
“To err is human, to blame shows management potential”—Anonymous.
Was it Nietzsche who said there are no facts, only interpretations? It’s been 30 years since my philosophy class in college so I don’t remember much, but here is my interpretation of an important topic: City/CRA relations.
After nearly two years of trying to figure out what to do with the Delray CRA—arguably the most accomplished in the state—it seems that there might be a détente between the city and the agency.
By détente—I mean an uneasy peace. Because when one entity is all powerful and shows a fundamental gratitude gap it’s hard to rest easy if you are the weaker player. In this case, the big bad CRA– with all its money, awards, track record of achievement and vision– is far weaker than the city—even if the city is wheezing, which it is. (My interpretation).
I am not an unbiased observer of this drama. My wife ran the agency for many years and I have been a fan of the CRA since moving to Delray in the 80s. If you feel this disclosure disqualifies my opinion or interpretation—jump off here because I’d like to share some thoughts.
If I had to make a list of the things I like most about Delray—and I am passionate about this city—I would be hard pressed to name something that our CRA hasn’t at least touched. From our downtown and Old School Square to our library and our attractive streetscape the CRA has played an integral role in creating value and quality of life in our community.
So if you love Delray it makes sense that you would appreciate the role the CRA has played over the past 30 years in helping transform Delray from blighted to pretty special—not perfect but pretty damn good. Now I get that there are people who don’t like what happened here and their views are legitimate and understandable. But I would bet that most people like or even love Delray Beach. Regardless, our CRA has been a big player in the city’s evolution for 30 years.
When he was first elected, Mayor Glickstein referred to the CRA as the “New York Yankees”—and as a Yankee fan I interpreted that as a compliment. After all, no franchise has won more World Series than the Bronx Bombers.
But to some, the Yankees are the Darth Vader of sports, the evil empire loaded with big bucks and an ability to land prized free agent talent with the stroke of a check. Maybe to some– the Delray CRA by virtue of its large budget and sizable impact –is seen as a threat or a competitor.
I have heard senior city staff and a few elected officials complain about all the money the CRA has and I even watched a comical/sad financial presentation that laid out a dire budget picture for the city, despite rising property values, healthy reserves, untapped revenue opportunities and a strong bond rating.
But of course, the clouds turn into a sunny day if (only) we didn’t have a CRA that sucked up all the money that could flow into the city’s coffers—because we all know how wisely and efficiently the city spends money (see consultants and outside attorneys). The city is certainly smarter and more efficient than the CRA right?
Well, not exactly. And that’s not on a knock on my city.
I love my city. I truly do. In fact, I love it enough to criticize it.
I think City Hall is struggling right now. And I think it has been struggling for a while.
It doesn’t bring me joy to write that sentence. But pretending that all is well doesn’t make it so.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t outstanding people at all levels who work for our city—because there are and many of them have shared with me their frustration. I believe them. And I believe in them. Always have, always will.
It also doesn’t mean that everything is broken—because it’s not. But there are issues my friends. There is tension, instability, silos and a fundamental disconnect between the city and some key volunteer leadership in this town.
There are long time stakeholders and many newcomers who feel estranged from their city government. There are many who feel that there is a lack of alignment and true dialogue with key institutions, a lack of transparency surrounding some key decisions and perhaps different goals and visions.
I’m sure that sentence will rub some the wrong way. That’s Ok; I’m willing to state what others are whispering or talking about behind closed doors. We can pretend or we can be real. There is no currency in pretense but there is opportunity in candor. Opportunity to heal; opportunity to empathize, opportunity to compromise and find solutions.
Let’s stick with the example of the CRA for a little while longer.
Over the past two years the CRA spent money on consultants and studies to justify its existence—despite 30 years of accomplishment that should be plain for all to see.
- A vibrant, nationally renowned downtown
- A thriving Pineapple Grove district
- Investment south of the avenue
- More than $60 million invested on the West Atlantic Corridor and the northwest and southwest neighborhoods
- A beautified Federal Highway (landscaping needs to be looked at for better sightlines) but it looks and feels better.
- A Community Land Trust and other housing initiatives that have upgraded neighborhoods and given families a decent place to live.
- A beautified Northwest and Southwest 5th Avenue
Private investment ranging from Atlantic Grove and the Fairfield Inn to the proposed iPic and Uptown Delray projects.
And the list goes on and on and on.
Getting rid of the CRA or messing around with its boundaries would risk $6.5 to $7 million of county money that flows to Delray every year; funds that would go elsewhere if we didn’t have a CRA. We could have saved both time and money on consultants and studies if we had just understood that pretty basic fact.
Since its inception in 1985, just about every mayor and city commissioner viewed the CRA as a partner, a teammate. They saw the CRA’s success as a point of civic pride. They saw their money as another wallet in the same pair of pants. After all, the CRA doesn’t collect TIF monies and spend it in Boynton or Boca —nope they spend it in our city. Now, you may not like or agree with where or how the money was spent. But it wasn’t spent in a vacuum. It was spent in service to a vision, a citizen driven vision.
For most of its tenure, the CRA has worked to implement a plan—crafted by their board and in service to community driven plans adopted by the city. Therefore, the agency was considered a valuable tool—not a competitor starving the city for money and glory, but rather a partner and a trusted one at that.
But that somehow changed and that’s sad in more ways that I can enumerate. So I guess I am glad to see that CRA Director Jeff Costello and City Manager Don Cooper have figured out a way to pay for the CRA to pay for more city projects and expenses—just like they always have, maybe even more so going forward.
But I was puzzled when I read in the online Boca Magazine that the Manager felt that past spending was “piecemeal”—I’m not sure what that means exactly. But it intimates that maybe the CRA was just spending “willy nilly”—after all some synonyms for piecemeal are fragmented, spasmodic, disconnected and haphazard.
Maybe the manager misspoke because the spending was anything but. Now again, you may not like what the money was spent on—the gateway feature, Old School Square, the Eagles Nest project with Atlantic High, Carolyn Holder Court (an affordable senior housing project) or the tennis tournament. But others liked those projects and most of them came out of community plans or public input; including the tennis tournament. The radical thinking was if you have a stadium you ought to put something in it.
Just because you weren’t around doesn’t mean the projects were piecemeal.
The same piece quoted the Mayor on the long term relationship between the City and CRA. Here’s what he reportedly said: “the CRA tail had been wagging the city dog. Now, the city is guiding the CRA.”
Guiding or dictating, I guess it’s all semantics or optics. Not sure which.
But I happen to disagree with the tail wagging analogy.
Since its inception the city and citizens have guided the CRA—but it’s been a partnership, a collaboration and a successful one at that.
As mentioned before, the CRA is a tool and has been used effectively to fund and implement citizen driven visions and plans. But it’s also been a quasi- independent agency—with smart board members who focus solely on redevelopment. As such, they sometimes have an independent idea and that’s usually a good thing.
The city can always object, call a foul or walk across the street and ask questions if they see something they don’t like or understand. It’s a relationship—relationships require communication and good relationships require agreement on goals and objectives. They also require mutual trust and respect. It’s also OK to disagree here and there.
This relationship –starting under Mayor Campbell –has worked pretty well. Take a look around, we’ve come a long way.
It’s been peaceful, not piece meal.
And wagging tails aside, it’s been a great tale indeed. At least that’s my interpretation.