Citizens have power, responsibility

by Barbara Clowdus

The clock ticks away opportunity along with time to polish and refurbish downtown Hobe Sound before other developments gut its luster and life. Residents have the power to effect real change and to by-step previous bureaucratic hurdles to genuine “re”-development of our downtown. Most important, perhaps, is that now we have a county official in our court, committed to working on citizens’ behalf. The power comes from the creation of the Martin County Redevelopment Agency by the Board of County Commissioners, which is funded from a percentage of property taxes returned to that area that must be spent locally. (And if not spent within three years, the money is returned to the county.)

The local Neighborhood Advisory Committee determines how the funds are spent, as long as they do not violate the county’s Growth Management Plan or exceed $250,000 in one expenditure, the latitude allows heretofore unprecedented options. The funds are not limited to projects such as laying sewer lines, building sidewalks, or installing pretty lampposts, as useful and necessary as all that is to creating a livable neighborhood.

The CRA also can serve as its own “economic development director” of sorts, choosing to spend its money to recruit businesses to fill empty storefronts, or to assist entrepreneurs by “filling the gap” between how much a bank will loan to finance an expansion project or to a purchase a building and that person’s actual cash on hand for a down payment. The CRA currently is creating opportunities for small, high-risk loans—the kind that banks no longer lend—in amounts from $5,000 to $25,000 for local businesses who need the cash to expand or change. The CRA has the power of imminent domain if used in the public’s interest for safety and health, demolishing and taking possession of abandoned buildings.

The CRA may purchase a plot of land or take possession of it for citizens’ safety. If the CRA chooses to purchase a piece of property, land values are determined in the public interest, rather than market value. The CRA also speeds the process of obtaining building permits and are currently working to develop a form-based code, significantly shortening the waiting time for permits. The county planning official in our court is Development Director Kevin Freeman, who has been in that position for less than a year. His energy and commitment took a Rio road project that had languished for five years, and by leaving his office, going into the Rio community, gathering business owners in one room–some of whom had never spoken to their business neighbors–the objections dissolved and the project is underway.

Freeman’s work and his work ethic are recognized by county officials and members of local communities as a rarity in government. The concern citizens should have is this: How long will someone of that caliber and drive in county government resist the lures of greener and more challenging pastures elsewhere? We need to take advantage of every minute that Kevin Freeman is willing to give Hobe Sound businesses and citizens. It begins with citizens themselves; those with imagination, creativity, energy and commitment to step forward. It begins by attending the local Neighborhood Advisory Committee meetings held in Hobe Sound only quarterly and by attending monthly CRA meetings in Stuart. It begins when we insist that now is the time to tap into the power and potential available to us, before the time ticks away.