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CRA says it’s making progress, but director position still undecided

By Staff | Aug 30, 2008

After two months on the job, the Cape Coral Community Redevelopment Agency’s interim executive director, John Jacobsen, says he has made significant progress, but CRA board members still do not have a concrete plan to replace him when his contract runs out at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the costs of using an hourly consultant as opposed to a salaried staffer are adding up.

Jacobsen was elevated to the director position at the end of June after the former director, Chris Norton was terminated without pay. CRA board members contracted Jacobsen, the former CRA chairman, to work for $75 per hour for six months, or for a total of 1,000 hours. Norton’s yearly salary was $95,000. In his first six weeks on the job, Jacobsen earned nearly $26,000, which included a $300 monthly car allowance. At that rate, Jacobsen’s annual compensation would run almost $224,000.

Jacobsen bills the CRA his $75 hourly rate for everything from reading and answering emails and press interviews to meetings with CRA, city, and business officials and working on the CRA’s budget.

CRA board members and downtown business owners alike say Jacobsen has been well worth any extra funds.

“He’s done more in two months than the other directors have done in 20 years,” said CRA board member Lou Simmons.

As a special taxing district within the city, the CRA is tasked with comprehensively redeveloping the downtown area. Part of that task means drawing new businesses to that area. Jacobsen’s local connections with both city staffers and business leaders have smoothed over the permitting process for businesses. Before Jacobsen stepped in some businesses say they endured an Odysseus-like trek through a maze of city red tape that could take as long as two years before obtaining the proper permits.

Kate Sroka, owner of All Aboard Preschool, said she was having trouble with the permitting process after a city staff error.

“He’s been wonderful,” Sroka said of Jacobsen. “He jumped straight on to the problem. We did manage to have a special meeting of the (Planning and Zoning Board).” Her permits were approved at that Aug. 15 P&Z meeting.

Despite his interim status, Jacobsen has brought a sense of stability to the executive director position, some say.

Norton lasted only six months on the job, and CRA board members have complained of what they say was piece-meal planning and a lack of progress achieved by his predecessor, Suzanne Kuehn.

Kuehn resigned for personal reasons.

“We have made some mistakes in the past in terms of our directors,” said CRA board member Don Heisler.

Jacobsen, however, has received rave reviews from his colleagues.

“I think he’s bridged the gap between the city and the CRA. Before there was somewhat of an adversarial relationship between the city and the CRA,” said CRA board member Rich Greer.

“I think he’s done a good job so far,” said Cape Coral City Councilmember Jim Burch, the Council’s liaison with the CRA.

Downtown businessman Elmer Tabor said the CRA has shifted from trying to attract large developments to improving the smaller ones since Jacobsen came on board.

“The focus the CRA had was on the Taj Mahals. They were trying to entice the developers to come in when they didn’t have the (infrastructure) to support it,” Tabor said. “They realized the master plan they designed was directed towards the Taj Mahals and not the little guy.”

Jacobsen’s contract is set to expire at the end of the year or whenever his 1,000 hour limit is exhausted, and the CRA board has yet to develop a replacement plan.

“That’s definitely something on our agenda,” said CRA board member Bob Greco.

“We’ll probably discuss it at a future meeting. Probably in the next couple of months,” said CRA Chairman Jason Tramonte.

Tabor has a suggestion for him.

“If I were sitting on the board I’d try to do a three-year contract with John,” Tabor said. “John has lived downtown and knows downtown. He surrounds himself with the right people and has the proper planning to get things done.”

Some of the projects Jacobsen says he has either finalized or gotten off the ground during his first two months as interim executive director include:

— Revised the community redevelopment plan

— Prepared next year’s budget

— A conceptual master stormwater plan that has been submitted to the South Florida Water Management District

— First draft of the master utilities plan

— Working with LeeTran officials to develop a plan for trolley service in the CRA

— Working with Lee County Electrical Cooperative and city officials to develop a plan for underground transmission lines in the CRA.