Remembering Bob Currie

Bob Currie

A number of years ago, I had lunch with a retired city employee who said something that resonated deeply with me.
She told me that while Delray was a wonderful town, we didn’t know how to say thank you to people who contributed greatly to our community.
I’m afraid that might be true.
So many good ones get away without formal recognition.
It’s not right and we should do something about it.
In fact, one of the reasons I write this blog and one of the reasons I invested in a community newspaper was to say thank you to special people who have enriched our community.
We lost Bob Currie last week and he was one of those special people. Very special.
Delray owes him a heaping debt of gratitude because his accomplishments are vast and his influence was widely felt.
If you like our public library, Bob is one of the people you should thank. He served on the library board for years and was dedicated to making sure we got a new one on West Atlantic.
He lived near the beach and was dedicated to the Beach Property Owners Association whose leadership adored and respected him.
He was passionate about Pineapple Grove and dedicated thousands of hours to the district, giving special attention to the design of projects in the neighborhood and to the gateway arch. I was with him the night it was first lit. We sat with half a dozen volunteers at a nearby restaurant and toasted the future—a future that people like Bob envisioned. He was a believer. A true believer in this town.
He was passionate about historic preservation and was immensely dedicated to the restoration and success of Old School Square.
He loved the “bones” of the place taking special delight in the Crest Theatre.
He loved the people who were similarly dedicated to Old School Square, especially founder Frances Bourque. He adored her and she loved him.
Bob gave so much of his time to the betterment of what I believe is Delray’s signature civic project.
Bob was a talented and experienced architect. His firm’s stamp can be found all over Delray and throughout South Florida and parts beyond.
Bob’s dad was an architect too and he was deeply devoted to the field.
He loved to paint, golf and travel.
He was smart, not afraid to argue for a position and earned his place as the dean of Delray’s architectural community.

Bob was a throwback to a time when dedicated volunteers made Delray Beach a very special place. They were long term players, deeply committed to Delray and able to work with others. They were interested in the big picture. Hence Bob’s interest in Pineapple Grove, the beach, OSS, the downtown and historic districts.
I miss those days.
Delray misses those days.
And Delray will miss Bob Currie.
He was a wonderful man. We were blessed that this is where he landed and that he decided to give his time and talents to Delray Beach.
Rest In Peace my friend.

Thank you….

High Rent Blight

Bleecker Street in the historic Noho District of NYC may be resembling bleak street these days.

The New York Times touched on an interesting topic last week: high rent blight.
They used the phrase to describe Bleecker Street in New York City which saw rents soar to $800 a square foot before retailers cried uncle and shut their doors. Now the once red hot street suffers from vacancy; hence high end blight which is considered late stage gentrification.
Which begs the question: can this happen to Atlantic Avenue?
Palmetto Park Road? Pineapple Grove?
When I moved here in 1987, we had conventional low rent blight. Rents were $5-$8 per square foot and vacancy rates downtown were about 40 percent.
Today, some restaurants are paying in excess of $100 per square foot–far from Bleecker Street numbers but still very high for our market.
Rents in Pineapple Grove are $30-$35 per square foot for prime space–(solid rents no doubt) and hardly imaginable back when Norman Radin conceived the district; but still not ridiculous.
But ….
high rents are coming.
They have hit the avenue and the  Grove is next.
Why?
Because we’ve had some incredibly high purchase prices on and off the avenue.

If you talk to veteran commercial real estate brokers, they are wrestling with the challenge of making rents jibe with high land prices.
It’s a conundrum.
If you believe in a free market–and I do–rising prices are driven by the market and represent good news for long time landlords who have weathered good cycles and horrible cycles.
But if you want to see a diverse mix of businesses downtown and if you value independent operators–as I do–the high prices are a major challenge.
As the son of an independent pharmacist I have a little insight into the challenges of making a small business work in a competitive environment.

Today, the challenges are bigger than ever. The internet, Amazon, the very difficult retail environment etc etc., all make it very hard to build and sustain a business. Even well- heeled chains are finding it hard to survive. Throw in high rents, a seasonal economy, high insurance, a tough labor market, competition for people’s time and complicated marketing channels and you can appreciate how hard it is to make it today. You can also appreciate the need to support local businesses and to shop local.

The Downtown Development Authority is wrestling with these issues in a smart way.
They are working with Robert Gibbs, a noted retail and downtown expert who has some familiarity with Delray having worked here during the creation of the Downtown Master Plan.
But no doubt about it, this is a challenging environment. And we need to be cognizant of  that. We also need to be aware of our downtown mix and our demographics too.

When rents get high, restaurants tend to push alcohol–a high margin item. And if we morph from a food destination to a nightclub scene that has consequences ranging from our brand and who hangs out here to public safety concerns and whether we become more of a late night destination than an all hours downtown.

Big topics. Great stuff to chew on.
But what we don’t want to see is high rent blight.

So how do cities address this issue without infringing on property rights or the free market?

My theory is a good offense is a good defense.
So here are a few thoughts.

Successful cities need multiple districts/neighborhoods to perform. If they do, businesses have options on where to locate.
So efforts must be made to transform The Set (and those efforts are being made), but also Congress Avenue, South Federal Highway, North Federal Highway and eventually the “four corners:” of Atlantic Avenue and Military Trail which was rezoned and reimagined a dozen years ago.
You can and should be working on multiple fronts both for practical reasons and market based ones.

The notion that cities can only do one thing at a time is plain wrong.

For example, the players for Congress and The Set are different. The areas don’t compete, they complement. Some investors will want West Atlantic. Some will prefer Congress or South Federal. Some will be interested in all of the above. Your “open for business” sign has to be open for all commercial districts while the economy is good.

One thing we know for sure, the cycle will end, so it’s important to get traction while you can. Development standards can and should be high. But you have to make hay when the sun shines as they say. And you don’t have to offer incentives–just attractive zoning and a smooth and predictable approval process. Be tough, but fair.

In previous down cycles– including the great recession– Delray Beach was the last to city to experience issues and the first to emerge from the doldrums. That was a result of a good planning,  a business friendly environment, a solid brand and a City Hall that knew how to execute.
Those are “hidden” but very real assets. So it’s just as critical that we rebuild capacity at City Hall.
How does this all address high rent blight?
Well..it doesn’t lower rents, or increase availability of affordable housing or commercial spaces overnight but it does spark competition so that if the market skews there are now options in our city. If we don’t create multiple options, people, business and investment will go elsewhere.
Hopefully over time the power of the market will modulate prices to better reflect what’s possible and desirable. That’s the bet, it’s not easy. But it’s doable. One thing for sure, doing nothing guarantees trouble.

An Influencer Returns

TomFleming

There’s a name in recent Delray Beach history that gets short shrift.
It shouldn’t.
The name is Tom Fleming and the good news is he’s back in town after more than a decade in Colorado.
I had a chance to reconnect with Tom a week ago at The Green Owl and while we share a lot of history, we spent our time talking about current conditions.
Tom has a fascinating perspective because he has both a history of Delray and a fresh view having been away for awhile.
He’s also an expert on downtown revitalization having worked for years in Delray and then in Colorado.
In short, he gets it.
Tom is an adherent of the Main Street school of revitalization. The National Main Street Center uses strategies and tools that have been proven in cities nationwide to bring Main Streets back to life.
Back in the day, Pineapple Grove was an officially designated “Main Street” and volunteers and early visionaries worked together and executed brilliantly.
When I first became aware of Tom I was a newspaper reporter and he was a developer. Along with a partner, Tom was building the beautiful Andover neighborhood off of Germantown Road.
Back in the 80s Delray was not exactly a desirable real estate market.
The city had a poor reputation compared to some of its neighbors especially posh Boca.
One of the major issues was the poor reputation of city schools.
It was hard to attract young families to live in Delray because of this issue and realtors even coined a termed for the malady naming it the “Delray dilemma.”
Tom was sensitive to this issue but instead of throwing up his hands in despair he rolled up his sleeves and got to work crafting a plan called “Sharing for Excellence.”
The document served as a blueprint for improving local schools. It called for special programs called magnets, better facilities and a host of other strategies. The community and city quickly got behind the effort and the School District embraced the plan–impressed that a city was willing to step up on behalf of its children.
The effort was the start of a long tradition of Delray leading the way on education issues, becoming an example for other cities to emulate.
Tom was an igniter of that movement.
Shortly after, he ditched his real estate career and reinvented himself as an urban revitalization specialist becoming the staffer for Pineapple Grove in its early days.
The grove was the brainchild of Norman Radin, a really cool pioneer who cut hair by day and sparked a movement by night.
Tom employed Main Street strategies to lead a volunteer, member based movement to create a successful street north of the avenue.
I often think how hard it is to have one great street in Delray. We have a few and hopefully more on the way.
In the early 2000s Tom left for Colorado and I missed him. We all did. I missed our conversations about streets and what makes them cool.
He is a thinker. A smart guy who knows how to get things done.
He sparked a movement in education and a great district in Pineapple Grove.
He is–without a doubt–one of our Delray greats. I’m glad he came home.

If You Could See What We See

Dare 2 Be Great supports promising Delray students with a goal of bringing them back home.

Dare 2 Be Great supports promising Delray students with a goal of bringing them back home.

We just came off an election in which development was the main issue.

The level of debate that we had will be the subject of a future blog, but when we think of development in Delray Beach or Boca Raton we would be foolish to limit our discussion to height, density and traffic.

We ought to be talking about human development and how we can develop young people and create more opportunities for our children and grandchildren. If you want to create a sustainable village, invest in young people. Fortunately, we have a number of worthy efforts to get behind.

Today, I want to tell you about Dare 2 Be Great.

About five years ago, I reconnected with Morgan Russell, an early investor in Pineapple Grove over breakfast at Christina’s.

I met Morgan early in my tenure on the City Commission and while most business people were focusing on Atlantic Avenue, Morgan had his eye on Pineapple Grove, a neighborhood just north of “the ave”.

Morgan lived in the Grove so that he could better understand its rhythms and nuances. He thought it could be a special type of neighborhood but he wanted to make sure that his investments would be made in “the path of progress.”  So one day we met and he looked me in the eye and asked if we were really serious about beautifying Pineapple Grove. I assured him that we were. It would be a public private effort, with the CRA, city and property owners splitting the costs. Morgan invested, along with others, and we did our part and Pineapple Grove blossomed.

So when we sat down years later—after losing touch for a bit of time—Morgan was determined to give back. But he wanted his philanthropy to be an investment in Delray Beach’s future and on a napkin we sketched out a plan to create the Dare 2 Be Great Foundation. We recruited a stellar board of directors and over the next four years we invested in local kids by sending them to college and providing mentoring opportunities. It has been a remarkable experience for all involved.

Along the way, we expanded our reach thanks to a generous donation from Carl DeSantis and a new partnership with Florida Atlantic University. As a result, we are able to help more young men and women.

Last week, we spent two days interviewing finalists for scholarships. Our criteria are simple; we want to support and mentor the next generation of leaders in Delray Beach. Scholars must live in Delray, have a 3.0 gpa, substantial community service and a desire to come back home and pay it forward. As long as they maintain their grades in college, we commit to them for four years and informally do all we can to open doors for them when they graduate.

The best part of the program for me is the interviews. After we pour through applications and essays, we invite the stand outs to meet the board so we can get a sense of who they are. This year we invited a few others outside the board to sit in. They too, were blown away by the talent in this community.

The interviews are always emotional; there are tears when we hear their stories and also laughter and joy when these remarkable young men and women share who they are and what they want to be.

We hear amazing stories of young people overcoming crushing poverty, family dysfunction, violence, peer pressure, racial tension and health issues to become remarkable people. This year, we interviewed kids who lost their parents to murder and illness and a young man who was homeless and walked six miles to school in order to “change my situation.” His mother told him books were the way out and he listened.

These are young people who don’t succumb to their problems, but succeed in a miraculous way, because of them. All are determined to better their lives and are motivated by their difficult circumstances to succeed through the power of education.  Not all of our scholars come from difficult circumstances, but most do. We are looking to help those who we believe have the potential to be extraordinary contributors to our community. As such, this is an investment in Delray Beach. A bet on kids, who dare to be great.

As a result, we ask them about their lives here and whether they are interested in coming back after they complete their studies. We should be proud to know that these incredible kids love our city and are passionate about coming back home and making a difference.

Whether they live in stable homes or homes that are rife with problems they have a common love for Delray Beach and a common pride as well.

They talk about enjoying the beach and the “ave” and others talk about loving their neighborhoods even though,  remarkably some have never been to the beach or to a restaurant downtown.

When the City Commission goes into budget sessions this year, they ought to know that programs put in place by prior commission’s changed lives– literally transformed lives –and that the money devoted to programs such as Eagle Nest, The Youth Council, Delray Center for the Arts, The Arts Garage and afterschool and summer programs touched a whole bunch of amazing and beautiful children.

We interviewed a young artist who was inspired by Delray’s many arts events and festivals. We talked to an amazing young man who found a passion for construction thanks to his work at the Eagle Nest, a city/CRA program.

In years past, we have interviewed kids who were inspired by the Criminal Justice Program at Atlantic High which is staffed by our police officers and this year we talked to a brilliant young mathematician who dreams of coming back home to be a professor/researcher at FAU and who aspires to teach other kids how to love math.

Every year, after we get done interviewing and drying our eyes, the board has the same three conclusions.

  • We wish everybody in Delray can see what we are seeing. The beauty of our diversity, the quality of our kids and the potential that radiates from them when they walk into a room.
  • We wish everybody can see the civic pride they exhibit regardless of their circumstances. They love this town and they want to come back and help and we owe it to them to build a city of opportunities so that’s its possible for them to be here. We need to grow beyond food and beverage; wonderful industries but we need more. Their aspirations need to be a part of our discussion over the future of our city. These are our children.
  • We can’t help them all. And we struggle with some very hard decisions. We need to grow this program and we need to touch more lives. We need more people to invest in the next generation. The return on investment simply cannot be measured. P.S. We have virtually no administrative costs. And yes it does take a village so your help is needed.

Please consider getting involved. There is no better way to impact Delray than to invest in kids, especially kids who dare to do great things with their lives.

 

 

 

Water Cooler Wednesday: Digital Main Streets

Rethinking Economic Development

Rethinking Economic Development

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has vision.

He’s a strong mayor on a mission to diversify Orlando beyond tourism, time shares and t-shirts.

So far, his plan is working. Downtown Orlando has come alive in recent years and is far, far more than Church Street Station these days. Lake Nona is a 7,000 acre hot bed for the medical industry with a school, research institutions and nearby start-ups taking root within the city limits.

Orlando hasn’t and will never abandon tourism, nor should it, but Orlando  also understands that it is never wise to rest on your laurels and it’s almost always smart to diversify.

In addition to medicine and urbanism, a nascent urban food industry is thriving with farm to table restaurants, organic growers, food manufacturers and the growth of “foodie” events and media celebrated by the likes of Edible Orlando magazine.

Add technology to the mix as well.

Mayor Dyer recently announced the creation of a “Digital Main Street” program which will seek to promote, support and grow Orlando’s tech community. The Digital Main Street is modeled on the long standing neighborhood revitalization known as Main Street .

Pineapple Grove in Delray used the Main Street program and philosophy to help redevelop Pineapple Grove in the 90s and early 2000s.

Main Street programs coordinate events, handle marketing and promotion, and work on the economic development of select areas. In the case of a Digital Main Street, the city will partner with the private sector on events, marketing and other activities needed to seed and fuel tech entrepreneurship in Orlando.

A basic rule of thumb is that government should get out of the way of entrepreneurs and that makes lots of sense. But while government can’t act as angel, seed or VC investor, there is a role for it to play.

Among the items that can be addressed by government are: removing unnecessary regulations that may hinder companies from locating, growing or even forming in your city, creating urban environments that attract entrepreneurs and working with the private sector to brand, promote and create events that are attractive to “start-up communities.”

The Main Street program in Delray’s Pineapple Grove did much to brand the area, which was the brainchild of Norman Radin, a visionary businessman who saw potential where others saw blight.

The Grove started with meetings, activities, events, and committees, all designed  to build excitement and momentum. It worked. Spectacularly.

When we think of economic development for Boca-Delray we should think beyond the “old school” efforts. Keep your incentives, add new ones (if they make sense), streamline approval processes but start to think creatively—like Mayor Dyer.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Create an event: Spark has worked for Jacksonville, PopTech for Maine, SXSW for Austin, Business Innovation Factory for Providence. Boca Delray has the weather, the airports, the hotels and the amenities to make it happen. There are also some terrific venues, including Lynn University, the Crest Theater, Arts Garage and Living Room Theater at FAU.
  • Support Programs that work: The Boca Chamber’s YEA program, which encourages youth entrepreneurship, is an example. All local high schools should teach entrepreneurship. And we should strive to bring new programs that have worked elsewhere here—such as “Girls Who Code.”
  • Invest in Human Capital: FAU held a business plan competition last week but will those who competed stay and grow here? We need to encourage local investing (locavesting). The capital is here but are we investing locally?   We should develop a strategy to bring our best and brightest back home after college. It’s the flip side of “Field of Dreams”—if they come back, they will build it.
  • Invest in MedUTech: Boca has a great branding mechanism to grow its health care, education and technology sectors.
  • Sports and Food 2.0: Delray has a unique opportunity to grow its food economy and build on its reputation to become a sports mecca. So does Boca Raton.

    The question is and has always been do we have the leadership– public and private –to make it happen?