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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Aug. 15, 201905:20 AM EST

The Mendenhall Report: DIA expands Retail Enhancement Grant program

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Organization wants to make incentive program more visible to attract businesses Downtown.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

The Downtown Investment Authority is making changes to its 5-year-old Retail Enhancement Grant program.

The independent city authority, which manages Downtown’s Community Redevelopment Area, wants to make the grant program, created in 2014, more visible and an incentive for business owners to open or relocate Downtown.

The DIA board voted Aug. 7 to expand the grant program’s boundaries on the Northbank — west to Jefferson Street and north to Ashley Street.

The vote also defined boundaries for the Southside Retail Enhancement Program that were not established when the grant program was certified on the Downtown Southbank. These boundaries now include the Southbank riverfront, south to Interstate 95 and east to Alamo Street. It includes The District property.

The program’s goal is to recruit and retain restaurants, retail and “creative office space” in the Northbank core. According to Downtown Vision Inc.’s 2018-19 State of the Downtown Report, the DIA has given $690,645 in retail enhancement grants to 14 businesses since the program began.

Beyond expanding the grant’s reach, DIA CEO Lori Boyer said the board also will consider later this year modifying its criteria. Currently, business owners who are approved for the Retail Enhancement Grant are reimbursed $20 per square foot or up to 50% of the project construction cost.

Boyer said the cost of materials and other expenses have risen since the program began, so officials think the grant parameters could be outdated.

Boyer said the DIA plans to start actively marketing the program and add more money. On the Northbank, the grant program has $800,000 available from the 2018-19 budget, with plans to add $300,000 in the 2019-20 budget. 

On July 21, the DIA’s Retail Enhancement Program Committee approved shifting $34,200 of DIA’s available operational capital to boost available grant money for Southbank-area projects to $210,000.

“Right now, it’s (the grant) used by those who are in the know. We want to broaden awareness. It’s time to let folks know about this again,” Boyer said. 

The DIA’s 2019-20 budget is scheduled for a hearing Friday at the City Council Finance Committee as part of council’s 2019-20 city budget review.

DIA officials say expanding the Northbank program west will encourage more retail near LaVilla, which is in line with a DIA and Jacksonville Transportation Authority redevelopment plan released in April to make the neighborhood walkable and bring more services.

“This will impact new demand for retail services we expect in LaVilla,” board member Oliver Barakat said.

But some, including Boyer, agree that the DIA missed an opportunity to expand retail in LaVilla. 

Vestcor Companies Inc. won the bid Aug. 7 to add an 88-unit, single-family townhome development on city-owned property at Adams, Johnson, Lee and Forsyth streets. 

The board chose Vestcor in a 5-2 vote over a proposal by second-ranked Johnson Commons LLC that included 9,500 square feet of retail and restaurant space with its proposed 107-townhome development. 

The board took the recommendation of the DIA scoring committee, comprising Boyer, Barakat and city Office of Economic Development Executive Director Kirk Wendland. 

Although she recommended Vestcor’s proposal, Boyer thinks mixed-use development in the historic Downtown neighborhood could boost density.

Vestcor was concerned that retail space created in the townhome development would sit empty, she said.

“I totally understood why. It was in Vestcor’s application. They didn’t shy away from it. They didn’t put retail in right now because they didn’t think the market would support it,” Boyer said. “There’s some truth to that, but you take up the physical land now, you cannot add it later.” 

There still is undeveloped city and JTA-owned property next to the townhome site that could be developed for mixed-use retail. Boyer said when the DIA issues a request for proposals to develop the space along Lee Street, ground-level retail could be attached to the sale of the parcel. 

Boyer said JTA could do the same with undeveloped property near Vestcor’s townhomes and the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center to “create a shopping area in the core of LaVilla.”

Boyer said there is no timeline for additional city-owned property sales in LaVilla.

DIA moves public comments

The DIA  changed its bylaws to move the public comments portion of its meeting toward the top of the agenda.

Before Aug. 7, public comments were scheduled near the end of DIA meetings after board action. That prevented people from commenting before the board reached decisions.

The amendment brings the DIA into compliance with Florida Statute 286.0114, which calls for the public to have “reasonable opportunity” to be heard on a proposition before a government board prior to official action.

The statute was adopted in 2013 after the DIA bylaws were implemented in October 2012. Boyer said the change increases the authority’s transparency and the efficiency of its public meetings.

“It somewhat expedites the process and you get the benefit of everyone’s input before you start the meeting,” she said.

The board voted 7-0 in favor of the change at its Aug. 7 board meeting and amended that agenda to start the procedure immediately. 

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