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CRA has big plans for Big John’s plaza

By Staff | May 15, 2012

Community Redevelopment Agency chairman Richard Greer wasn’t about to pat himself on the back for past achievements during his “State of the CRA” address to city council Monday at its workshop meeting at City Hall.

He instead talked about the need to get more local business downtown and, most significantly, what to do with the Big John’s plaza to make it a destination.

It was exactly what council members wanted to hear, but there were still questions such as, how do we get small businesses to come back to downtown.

Greer discussed the contrasts of urban and suburban life. He said while more is better for downtown, it’s not the case with the suburbs.

“Suburban businesses reach their peak in seven years then fall off. It’s a disposable community,” Greer said. “There are substantial returns for those who hold a building for a long time downtown. The more activity, the more people, which increases property values and rents.”

Greeralso said the CRA plans to devote its focus now to the Zyscovich Plan at BigJohn’s Plaza on 47th Terrace, which will entail an entertainment center where concerts and other events can be held to encourage people to get out of their cars and walk downtown.

That news was music to Councilmember Kevin McGrail’s ears, who said he has tired of the CRA’s grandiose plans which ended up as just plans.

“I’m glad you’re not abandoning the Viscovich plan because you’re fighting history,”McGrail said. “The CRA has had grander and grander plans with nothing to show for it.”

“The focus is to stay in that four-block area. We won’t turn back,” Greer said. “We need to create a buzz and create a spiral upward. We want to create a place.”

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz wondered where the cash-strapped CRA, with its ever-dwindling supply of tax increment financing funds – tax money based on increased property values – would find the money for its vision.

“You still have focus to spend money in that area. With limited money, you had better walk slow,” Chulakes-Leetz warned.

“The money is out there and we look to find it wherever we can to support these projects,” Greer responded.

Mayor John Sullivan lamented how the big box stores have snuffed out the mom-and-pop stores and asked how the CRA planned on bringing them back.

“We need to bring the bodies in. They spend money. It will take time,” Greer said. “You’re not buying a hammer and nails in Ybor City or Bourbon Street, you’re buying a place.”

There was talk about past achievements, such as the underground utilities, Malaga Park, the beach at Four Freedoms and faade painting.

Butfor the CRA, the future is now.

“Onceyou get people to eat and drink here, you have a place,” said John Jacobsen,CRA executive director. “We want to profits to stay here.”