Lack of confidence remains for DIA
For weeks, maybe months, frustration had been growing among City Council members about the independent Downtown Investment Authority's lack of action and its close relationship with the city's Office of Economic Development.
By not using any of the $9 million set aside by Mayor Alvin Brown for Downtown development, there was a real possibility council would take back the money to help shore up the mayor's proposed budget, which had more than $60 million in cuts.
And by continuing to use the OED's staff and being influenced by its top two executives, some council members began to believe the independent board was too closely aligned with the Brown administration.
At the authority's July 24 meeting, those two concerns were magnified and threatened the board's existence after less than a year.
OED Executive Director Ted Carter and Deputy Director Paul Crawford offered a resolution for the office to take over the negotiations of six Downtown projects — duties that were clearly meant for the authority board. Carter's office is supposed to handle development outside Downtown.
Board member Donald Harris said the purpose was to show a sense of urgency and that there was a plan for the funds before they were taken by council.
The proposal, which passed 7-1, backfired.
Council member Richard Clark said that was the point he concluded the authority had essentially been absorbed into the administration's economic office. "If you control the process," he said, "you control the DIA."
Soon after, the Downtown funds were swept into a broader capital projects fund by the council.
Yet that wasn't the worst part for the authority.
"There were rumblings of just shuttering the whole thing at that point," Clark said.
Since the vote, the authority's new chief executive officer has started and there are plans to discuss having the six projects turned over to him.
But, the concerns remain.
The aftermath of the vote
Council member Don Redman, who represents parts of Downtown, spoke frankly at an authority meeting after the vote to give OED the power to negotiate the projects.
Redman said there were discussions within City Hall about the board losing its ability to operate and that Brown's administration was "taking charge."
"If other City Council members are getting fed the same thing I am getting fed, you can understand why we're getting disillusioned," he told the board.
In individual interviews last week, nine council members confirmed there have been concerns about the OED overstepping its role and the authority allowing it.
"There are indications that independence has not been totally there," said Council President Bill Gulliford, saying the lack of an interim executive director caused the perception.
Selecting an interim director had support among some on the board but never happened. The board instead relied on OED staff for day-to-day operations, which the legislation allows.
Council member Matt Schellenberg said there was too much "commingling" between the authority and OED, specifically between the authority and Carter and Crawford.
Carter said during the July meeting that Crawford has had the "majority of his time" assigned to the authority.
"I don't think they have been very independent over the past year and that's been an issue," said Schellenberg. "He (Carter) is supposed to be doing everything involved outside of Downtown."
Council member Denise Lee also said she thought the OED "is over the line a little bit" in its dealing with the authority.
But council member Stephen Joost said he had less confidence in the authority when it started and has gained more after talking to Carter and his staff about the Downtown board's plans.
Board member Melody Bishop also said the OED's involvement was necessary, given the structure.
"To be honest, it would be a shame to look in hindsight at how the OED (assisting) was a bad thing," she said. "Their role was serving as our staff until such time as a CEO came aboard."
Without a staff, she said "everybody would sit, time frozen" and no business would have been accomplished.
But, Authority Vice Chair Jim Bailey, publisher of the Financial News and Daily Record, said the criticism of a lack of independence is "fair and justified" and that the hiring of an interim executive director would have changed that perception and inspired more confidence.
"We didn't do it, that's our fault," said Bailey, the only board member to vote against handing over the negotiation of the projects to the OED.
Board Chair Oliver Barakat said he heard the criticism and that while it was "somewhat valid" and "not warrantless," the level of criticism geared toward issues of independence and productivity have been "a little overblown."
Accomplishments hard to pinpoint
The question of the board's decisions and results in the first year also has been a point of discussion and for some, affected the confidence level.
That includes the council member who might have followed the organization most closely since its creation.
"I don't have a great deal of confidence in the decisions they have made to this point," said council member Lori Boyer, who regularly has attended board meetings and serves as the authority's council liaison.
Boyer said she is disappointed the board has been more reactive than proactive on issues. She said she has yet to see members engage their personal expertise and backgrounds, a reason they were chosen to the board per the legislation.
But, Boyer said she has confidence in the board members and has been pleased with their actions the past few weeks in crafting a budget and running meetings.
Other council members echoed Boyer's sentiments about having confidence in the individual board members.
"The folks who are sitting on the DIA are qualified people," said council member John Crescimbeni. "I think they have the skill set to take that agency where council expected Downtown to go."
There's still concern about the lack of accomplishments in the eyes of many council members.
"I don't think much has been done," Schellenberg said.
Others paused before answering when asked of the authority's first-year successes.
"Nothing that I know," said Lee. "I absolutely have no idea what they have accomplished."
Lee chaired an ad hoc committee that worked on the issues of Hemming Plaza before turning the work over to the authority in December.
A Request for Proposal seeking a private entity to manage the Downtown city park was worked on by authority board members, but the language was changed by a city department or the administration, Lee said last week during a meeting. It received no responses.
"My hope was they would have one feather in their cap, one goal (by the end of the first year)," said Crescimbeni. "Hemming Plaza would have been an excellent thing."
Almost all indicated one concrete accomplishment: The hiring of CEO Aundra Wallace, who started on Aug. 19.
Several council members said they have met Wallace, while others have him on their schedule.
Gulliford met with him his first week and told him "what I thought as far as the need for independence."
"I think he is starting to get the idea of the political realities of the relationship," Gulliford said.
The board's first year
Barakat, who became chair in June after Harris served the first year, said Friday that hiring Wallace isn't the board's only success.
He said other accomplishments include having a $1.5 million operating budget approved by the council, the hiring of a consultant for the Community Redevelopment Area plan that board members have worked on and establishing the overall organization.
"I don't think we knew what we were really getting to," Barakat said, referring to the volunteer board's role of beginning "a start-up with no precedent."
He said in the past two months the board has learned about working with Council and has become "much more sophisticated" in its interactions and overall work.
He said in hindsight, the board could have been more proactive "on certain items" at a time when the learning curve was steep for some. He declined to identify the "certain items."
Harris said the group accomplished much in the way of developing a foundation during its first year.
"The first year was all about developing the process," he said.
Soon after being interviewed by the Daily Record, Harris provided a list of accomplishments that included the adoption of the authority's bylaws, the creation of three subcommittees, approval on parking rates and ordinance changes, and incentives for the Pope and Land apartment and retail deal on Riverside Avenue.
Board member Mike Saylor, who joined in March, said the authority recently has been "more independent than we have been" in the past but the day the authority truly will be independent is when council approves the plan, which is required by the state and legislation. It is slated to be completed early next year.
Frustration with a lack of tangible results has not been isolated to the council, Barakat said.
"All DIA members share some frustration on productivity in the first year," Barakat said.
Saylor said a priority should have been in hiring the CEO sooner, while Bishop said the board "probably should have taken a very active approach" in asking for its own temporary budget, staff and interim CEO.
What lies ahead
Barakat said Friday he planned to start a discussion about a schedule to transfer the Downtown projects from OED back to Wallace.
"The way I see it, the OED will help Aundra in the first 60 days or so for consistency," Barakat said. "That will give him some firepower, some help, get him up and running."
He said he considered it the "evolution" of Wallace's role and the authority itself.
Although the city budget has not been finalized, the authority has been awarded a $1.5 million operating budget that will include funds for staff.
It will also have money to incentivize developers, although not as much as board members hoped.
The Finance Committee initially took the entire $9 million but returned $4.1 million to a Downtown development fund.
After the initial decision to take the funds, board members passed a resolution asking council to let the authority keep the full funds.
Barakat tabbed himself and Bishop to lobby the council, with both saying they contacted multiple Finance Committee members. Saylor and Bailey said they also talked to council members.
Most said they knew the city budget's financial constraints and realized some or all of the funds were at stake.
"You'd have to be living under a rock not to see it coming," Bailey said.
Barakat said Wallace would lead efforts to push for more of the funds to be restored.
"I think everyone understands $4.1 million is not enough," he said, when describing the needs and the projects that are coming.
Crescimbeni advocated for the authority to retain more during the budget hearings.
"This board, this agency is coming up to full stride and that's when I am definitely expecting them to produce," he said. "I don't know how they are going to do that without resources … and I don't think having a bake sale at the corner of Main and Forsyth (streets) will do a lot for Downtown."
Wallace said recently that he planned to hire staff soon and knew the importance of time in the eyes of those keepings tabs on the organization.
"Time is not a commodity I have," he said, "and I know I have to show them results."
Council members said they expect results.
"I think the council is looking for more activities and plans and proposals to come from the authority," Clay Yarborough said.
He said he will be looking for a plan — not just the redevelopment plan — over the coming months and if there is no movement, then a conversation of whether the authority should exist needs to be had.
Gulliford and other council members said the results can be measured by projects, but opinions varied on the size, number and scope of what projects needed to be accomplished.
"Move Downtown," Lee said. "Bring developments, business, whatever, to make Downtown thriving."
Boyer said she preferred to see the redevelopment plan presented with the authority's business plan because the two are related. In addition, she said those plans needed to reflect all of the different projects happening outside the authority's purview, such as Jacksonville Transportation Authority Bus Rapid Transit, to be successful.
Each also had an underlying message.
"We as a body absolutely want the DIA to succeed," Clark said. "We need them to succeed."