Unlocking Southside

Big plans are in the works.
Unlocking SouthsideNo longer overlooked, Tallahassee’s south side is full of promise and potential 

By Jason Dehart

If you want to build homes and businesses in Tallahassee, you need to face south. Just look at a map.

To the north, there are massive tracts of pristine plantation land. To the southwest, there’s the Apalachicola National Forest. Closer toward town, Midtown and downtown are jam-packed. To the north, the Interstate 10 area is bustling with new development, and eventually new homes will sprout up in the Welaunee property in the east. To the southeast, there’s SouthWood and, nearby, a new St. Joe Company development is being considered south of Tram Road.

That leaves us with the south side of town. It’s that area below Gaines Street and inside Capital Circle Southwest and Capital Circle Southeast. It includes neighborhoods such as Myers Park, Mabry Manor, Alumni Village, Providence and Bond. It’s an area of many small businesses, and it has a few pockets of low-income, subsidized housing. It’s also home to the Capital City Country Club and city infrastructure such as the city’s sewer plant, not to mention Tallahassee Regional Airport. But it’s also full of promise and potential – and that’s not lost on city leaders and commerce builders.

“I think what we’re looking at is a blossom that is about to really open and shine and illuminate a new distinctness in that area of our community,” said Leon County Commission Chairman Bill Proctor. “It will be led by activities outside Capital Circle; SouthWood and St. Joe properties off Woodville Highway will shake and bring energy down to that area.”

“What makes the south side important is that it’s the only real growth potential left in Tallahassee – this area centered on the south side of town,” said Lucas Hewett, senior director of the Tallahassee office of GVA Advantis.

“I think people underestimate the south side,” said Brad Day, executive director of the Tallahassee-Leon County Economic Development Council. “I think the opportunities on the south side are some of the most favorable in our region.”

New Times for an Old Community

Tallahassee probably began in what is now the south side, according to Kim Williams, president of Marpan Supply and former chairman of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. Williams was born and raised in the neighborhood, and his family business has been there for nearly 40 years.

“I’ve been watching this side of town pretty much since I was a kid
. . . When Tallahassee was built, this was where most of the construction was,” Williams said. “Then (Tallahassee Memorial Hospital) was built, then you started having development happen across from it in Betton Hills . . . but this is the older part of town. One of the older homes in the neighborhood dates back to like 1885.”

With changing times, though, came changing demographics, and over time it seemed that the south side began losing economic ground to neighborhoods to the north and east. It became less upscale, more working-class and poor. It was a trend that the city and county recognized 16 years ago and decided to change.

“In 1990, the city and county recognized that the south side was experiencing a loss of population, increased unemployment and general stagnation, and we knew we needed to act to reverse these trends,” said Mayor John Marks. Today, Marks said, there is a widespread strategy in place to encourage a positive growth pattern, and there are at least
20 business assistance or business incentive programs targeting the southern part of the city.

“Soon, the full benefit of encouraging economic growth in the south side will be apparent by the increased business activity, as well as the enhanced quality of life and opportunities for our citizens,” he said.

Enterprise Zones and CRAs

Helping increase business activity is the Enterprise Zone Development Agency, chaired by Darryl Jones. An Enterprise Zone is a geographic area targeted for economic revitalization, and much of the south side is inside the Tallahassee-Leon County Enterprise Zone. It’s a creation of the state government and administered by the Tallahassee-Leon County Economic Development Council.

“We provide tax exemption for construction, rehabilitation and development to make this area more attractive for for-profit and not-for-profit (business),” Jones said.

The Economic Development Council keeps tabs on how well the zone works. During the 2004-2005 fiscal year, Enterprise Zone efforts resulted in 28 incentive applications being processed for a total tax refund or credits amounting to $690,115. In addition, 175 jobs were created.

Other economic redevelopment programs are the Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Area and the Community Redevelopment Agency, which the City Commission chartered in 1998. A community redevelopment plan and a trust fund were set up in 2000.

According to the city’s governmental Web site, the CRA incorporates more than 1,450 acres of residential, commercial, retail and industrial land usages, all located near the downtown area. It consists of 13 neighborhoods, seven major commercial areas – including south-side areas such as South Monroe Street, Gaines Street, Lake Bradford Road and South Adams Street – and many mixed-use areas. Since its inception, at least $620,000 has been generated through tax increment funds. This money is used for CRA projects such as Providence neighborhood improvements, Frenchtown’s Village Market Place, and sidewalk and streetscape improvements on South Monroe Street and in the All Saints neighborhood.

Brad Day, executive director of the Economic Development Council, said the CRA is a major force on the south side.

“The future is very bright for the south side,” he said. “One of the major players that’s going to emerge is the CRA. What they do is dedicate any new property tax toward redevelopment in that area. It’s kind of like saying success breeds success.”

Expanding Service Helpful

Another idea that could make a big difference is expansion of the city’s Urban Service Area, proposed last year, said Hewett, of GVA Advantis. An expansion of this area could help provide more work-force, or affordable, housing by increasing the area in which the city can provide services such as water and sewer.

“It’s the utilities that make development happen,” he said. “Last year there was a grass-roots effort by a number of folks and Realtors . . . They said one of the reasons why we don’t have a lot of work-force housing on the market is because the Urban Service Area is too constrained. We’re so constrained, and we’ve seen the prices, and we’ve seen what it’s done on the north side of town, and even in SouthWood we’ve seen the prices go up. So the south side of town is really where we’re going to see a lot more work-force housing, I think, in Tallahassee.”

Hewett said “political pressure” has kept the service area constrained to reduce sprawl, but at the same time it has reduced supply. “So you have high demand, low supply and high prices,” he said. “That’s essentially where we are. If you expand the Urban Service Area, you’re adding supply, so it’s easier for
developers to go in and bring higher densities to those areas. You add supply, so prices should come down and, therefore, you have more affordable work-force housing in those areas.”

Housing, Shifting Populations are Factors

Hewett is not the only one concerned with the availability of work-force housing. Teachers need places to live too, said Leon County School Board Chairwoman Sheila Costigan.

“The city and county are really intent on doing that, bringing (work-force housing) in,” Costigan said. “Mayor Marks said it’s No. 1 on his agenda, so does (City Commissioner) Andrew Gillum, and we’re really excited about that because we want to make sure our teachers can afford to live here. People who make $40,000 a year can’t buy a house. That’s not even our teachers’ starting salary. That’s five years of experience – maybe.”

But schools on the south side face other challenges resulting from what Costigan calls underutilization. This problem led to the recent closing of Caroline Brevard Elementary School.

“We are not growing fast right now. What we have is a disproportionate amount of growth in the northeast and east sectors of Tallahassee. Overall, our school growth is slow, but we’re having to close schools,” Costigan said. “We have five south-side schools that are underutilized . . . We are having to shift and rezone some of those areas so we can better populate these – just on the south side.” 

County Chairman Proctor said it’s not a good sign when a community loses an elementary school.

“It’s a sign of the age of the community. It indicates people of childbearing years are not in the community,” he said. “There are mostly college students and renters versus homeowners and people making a commitment to the area. It raises questions about affordable housing . . . and lots of questions need to be answered.”

The School Board may have shut down one school, but it is in the process of building another. The old Bond Elementary School, which had taught generations of students, was demolished last year to make way for a new, state-of-the-art elementary school that will combine the populations of both the old Bond school and another south-side school, Wesson Elementary.

“It’s the first new school on the south side in 30 years,” Costigan said. “It will revitalize the area – hopefully it’s already done that, because we’ve put in sidewalks, and given the city and county some easement space to better the roads. We have a holding pond there that’s going to benefit everyone – but again, it’s really close to FAMU’s campus, and it’s imperative that we work with FAMU to make sure there is no more encroachment into the family dwellings that are already there.”

School officials are pinning their plans on SB 360, a new state law passed last year that calls for cities and counties to give school districts a greater voice at the growth management table.

“The challenge we face is the fact that our populations, our student populations, are shifting,” said School Superintendent Bill Montford. “And it’s shifting from the south to the east and northeast. It is a result of the expansion of student housing for FSU, FAMU and Tallahassee Community College.”

Speaking of housing, there is a concerted effort to build good homes for low-income families on the south side.

“There are a number of agencies involved in affordable housing,” said Williams, of Marpan Supply. “There’s only so much you can get done, so it’s good having more than one effort.”

One of those efforts is spearheaded by the Enterprise Zone Development Agency’s Jones and the Bethel AME Community Development Corporation, which over the past 10 years has built around 48 new homes for south-side residents using money from the federal Housing and Urban Development authority.

“The people I’m trying to help are persons who are considered low- or very-low- to moderate-income families who cannot be served by traditional lenders,” Jones said.

The Bethel Community Development Corporation builds 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath homes, primarily in the Bond community. These new homes are placed three or four in a row throughout the community to let residents know the area is changing.

“We realized that it was our responsibility as a major congregation in this community to be concerned with the quality of life of the residents who live within the shadow of the church,” Jones said. “We are in this $3-million structure and yet there is blight all around us. And so we realized we need to utilize our human capital found in this church for the benefit of our neighbors.”

Leroy Hill, executive director of the Bethel Community Development Corporation, said it’s a great joy to help first-time homeowners achieve their dream.

“What makes this so pleasing is, when they are closing on the house, you can see the expression on their faces that says, ‘I didn’t believe that I would be able to own a home.’ Some of these are younger people, some are older, but they all have the same expression,” he said. “We’re going to be building continuously, as long as we can buy vacant lots.”

Pastor John Green, who’s been at Bethel for 10 years, said the south side certainly is in need of these kinds of resources.

“I believe the city needs to be looking at the growth of the south side and putting things on the south side that will stabilize us,” Green said. “A community is never secure unless it has stability – in terms of jobs, in terms of the amenities that you commonly expect.”

“It’s a tough question to say exactly what it needs,” Jones said. “I think it needs an enormous influx of capital – human as well as financial.”

“My vision is to bring this area up to a notable standard as the rest of the areas in the city of Tallahassee, by building houses for low-income people in the future,” Hill said.

Proctor, meanwhile, said one other key is improving the community’s roads.

“The widening of Orange Avenue covered over some dangerous ditches. I feel so good about the public safety that was enhanced (with that project),” he said. “Now the road is running on top of where a public nuisance once was, and I’m glad it’s gone. Now we’ve got to have Woodville Highway four-laned, and I need Springhill Road four-laned. Those are the projects we need to get the north and south arteries open and
flowing. Those have to occur, and largely they have to happen not only because they are gateways, but because they are emergency evacuation routes.

“I’m going to play every card in the deck to advance the stability, the prosperity and safety of the south side as a desired and preferred place to live in,” Proctor added. “That’s been my goal since the minute I got here.”

Businesses Need a Hand

The permitting process can get hairy for small business owners seeking to set up shop – especially on the south side, Williams said. He’s seen it before.

I’ve seen businesses fail because they’d go to get a permit to turn a gas station into a restaurant and somebody in growth management says, ‘Well, you need to do three things,’ and they do the three things and come back for the permit and they say, ‘Well, you need to do these three things,’ and they go and do these three things . . . If somebody would be the ombudsman for that small businessman, they would be the liaison to prevent them from going and leasing a building with the expectation that with their limited resources they could open a business here,” he said.

But positive steps recently were taken in that regard, he said.

“The county has recently worked on putting an ombudsman into the county growth department to do exactly what we asked them for in 1994,” Williams said. “In 1993 or 1994, the county did a Comp Plan amendment that was basically a south-side initiative in their eyes, but it basically tried to tell us how to develop and put a layer of architectural controls over new development. But instead of making it easier to develop here, they were going to make it more difficult. Our group, the Southside Business Association, helped modify the language and asked for an ombudsman to help people through permitting.”

The Economic Development Council’s Day also believes there’s room for improving the small-business climate on the south side.

“Greater emphasis on small-business development needs to take to place,” he said. “The EZ Development Agency is running on all cylinders right now, and we’re hoping to expand some of those programs. But right now, there’s not enough being done for small business on the south side. I think that we as a community need to create a better climate for entrepreneurship there. And we can do that by providing a shorter permitting process and expanding training opportunities in entrepreneurship.”

Aside from that, Day said, there are other issues that may make business developers a little standoffish when it comes to locating on the south side.

“There is a real or perceived notion of crime being high on the south side, there are some real or perceived notions about contaminated property – when you have environmentally contaminated sites, that is a barrier to development,” he said. “Then there’s the belief that all economic development translates into retail development. That really is a way for them to spend their money. It really doesn’t make a meaningful increase to the economy of that area; what it does is churn the existing money around. So when people see new construction, they think, ‘Oh, that’s economic development.’ But is it really bringing any new money into the community?”

Hewett, meanwhile, said he thinks the south side is about to turn the corner.

“I really think we are on the turn with the south side,” he said. “You have a mayor who is committed and a commission that’s committed to lift that part of town. And you have retail housing and road infrastructure. I think the big part of waiting for that time has passed. GVA Advantis is doing more and more business in the south side of town. Industrial land sales, residential development, retail leasing and sales, we’re doing site selection for banks – we’re doing all that kind of work in the south side, and we’re doing a lot more of it now than we were five years ago.”

Categories: Business Journal