Delray Beach, FL, July 04, 2010 --(PR.com
)-- In 1985, Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency was formed to rebuild the city’s depressed downtown.
The corridor had a 40 percent storefront vacancy rate. A major property hadn't changed hands in nearly 15 years. By 5 p.m., the place was a ghost town.
And so, the agency set out to create city partners, attract private investors, and find creative ideas to reshape the struggling district.
Now, 25-years later, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is celebrating those pioneering steps that eventually transformed the downtown into a thriving destination with modern buildings, fancy restaurants, and unique attractions.
The dramatic turnaround of downtown’s East Atlantic Avenue is credited to the innovative work of many agencies. But many agree that the CRA was the leader in creating a well-oiled development machine that has brought thousands of new residents to Delray Beach and raised taxable values in the CRA district to once-unthinkable heights, from $245 million in 1985 to $1.2 billion in 2010.
“The CRA was the most instrumental entity in the transformation of the downtown,” said Bill Branning, a CRA commissioner and longtime owner of a general contractor company in Delray Beach. “If it wasn’t for the agency, the fate of Delray Beach would have been the same as so many other cities in Florida which are passed over because they aren’t interesting.”
Added Elizabeth Butler, the CRA’s marketing and grants coordinator: “We knew we could never develop the district ourselves. The benefit of the CRA is the leveraging of city, county, federal and private dollars. We are the catalyst and buzz so others could create and build.”
Delray Beach always had a classic American downtown with a central street and low buildings. But when the downtown fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s, many felt it was because the district lacked the right businesses and activities to attract outsiders.
That’s why the CRA was started in the summer of 1985.
The first task was to improve certain buildings and add parking spaces.
The CRA used about $3 million from a bond issue to buy a complex on East Atlantic Avenue next to the railroad tracks and construct parking spaces behind several buildings. Private developers went on to purchase the 12,000-square-foot complex, known as Grove Square, pour $2 million into renovating and enlarging it, and open three restaurants. The next step was drawing people.
The CRA partnered with the City, Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Authority to establish the Downtown Marketing Cooperative—a joint venture that markets the downtown and runs special events, such as Art and Jazz on the Avenue and the July Fourth Celebration.
Those investments, by many accounts, were a turning point in bringing upscale restaurants, galleries and boutiques to the avenue as well as putting the city on the map in South Florida as a recreational and cultural destination.
These days, tens of thousands of tourists continue flocking to Delray Beach every year, with many staying for good. Rows of new condos and townhouses are home to upwardly mobile families. Come midnight, many glitzy restaurants are still crowded.
The CRA remains a vital entity, officials said. As the population grows, the agency is setting policies to control the downtown’s expansion and contributing to the construction of parking lots and garages. It is also trying to draw builders, businesses, and jobs to the less-developed West Atlantic Avenue corridor.
“Our job is far from being done,” Butler said. “As we look back, our investments have had huge returns to the community. We’ve done a lot, but we certainly didn’t do it all ourselves.”
Leon Fooksman is a journalist who writes for Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. He can be reached at leon[at]astorytellingcompany.com