When Downtown Bartow Inc., was created, its initial board members never imagined that the organizations it spawned would some day generate millions of dollars for downtown development.
(We can speak with some authority on this subject, since this newspaper had representation on the DBI board for a number of years.) DBI morphed into today’s Main Street Bartow Inc., and was the catalyst for creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
CRAs were relatively new and unknown back then, and terms like “tax increment financing” had not entered the everyday lexicon. Basically, a CRA is a bootstrap-type organization that fosters redevelopment of “blight and slum” areas, and captures the increased tax revenues produced by those improvements.
The definition of “blight and slum” has been applied liberally, to say the least, and CRAs in some cases receive increased tax revenue that city and county governments argue — with some justification — should go to them. But that is an argument for another day.
When DBI decided to undertake creation of a CRA, it was for the sole purpose of raising funds for the salary of its staff of one: its executive director. But by drawing boundaries that included most of Bartow’s prime commercial property, both developed and undeveloped, it created a revenue stream that has, on occasion, exceeded $1 million.
It is not surprising that Bartow’s city government has homed in on that revenue stream, nor is it inappropriate. Oversight of both funds and staff has been unclear with the CRA operating as a more or less autonomous agency.
Through the combined influence of DBI, Main Street Bartow Inc., the CRA, the Bartow Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Bartow, much has been accomplished.
The most dramatic change has been the multi-million dollar redesign of Main Street nearly a decade ago to make it a more pedestrian friendly and vastly more attractive venue. Weekly and monthly activities (when the weather cooperates) bring people to Main Street events ranging from antique sales to bike rides to stage shows.
New businesses have been founded under an “incubator program.”
When revenues were more flush than they are today, the CRA branched out into neighborhood parks and landscaped “gateways.”
But with funds getting tighter, the focus is being tightened to Bartow’s core business district, and that is good. That is where the greatest need is.
With the county commission appearing to move closer to building a four-story parking garage in the county government complex, the shortage of downtown parking — a shortage that is more perception than reality — should disappear as a limiting factor for commercial development.
The CRA is seeking citizen input at a meeting Thursday morning at 8 at city hall. Here is ours:
We believe that one of downtown’s greatest needs is one or more general merchandise stores. The days of Publix or Belk Lindsey building in downtown areas are gone.
There are a number of fine specialty shops in downtown Bartow: a Christian book store, several gift shops, a pet supply store, a florist, and many others.
But most serve a targeted clientele on targeted occasions. Few customers wander down the street and on impulse, decide to buy a copy of the New Testament or a floral arrangement.
Meals, yes. Within a span of five blocks, you can enjoy a selection of cuisine ranging from Cuban to Asian, and menus specializing in everything from seafood to pizza.
But downtown Bartow needs, and we believe it can attract, smaller general merchandise stores, such as a hardware store, a more upscale (yes there are such things) dollar store, even major retailers who also operate scaled down stores such as the small Sears store once located in Bartow.
There are plenty of vacant buildings, and limited vacant land, which could accommodate traffic-builder stores such as these.
Some already operate in stand-alone sites in or near Bartow. We have to believe that they would prosper as part of the downtown business community.
And we believe existing downtown specialty shops would benefit from having mercantile neighbors offering a broader spectrum of merchandise that would draw more shoppers to the downtown district on a daily basis.
Such a “back to basics” approach to commercial development, in our opinion, holds great promise for downtown Bartow.