If you like politics, the place to have been this past Friday morning was at City Hall for the latest meeting of the Mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee (URAC), where local politicos abounded. In addition to the regular attendees, which include Councilwomen Sherri Myers and Megan Pratt and former Councilwoman Diane Mack, Council President Sam Hall stuck his head in to say hello. Even Councilwoman Maren DeWeese was close to the action as she was spotted in the hall outside the meeting chatting up Mr. Hall — and all this at 9:30 in the morning.
URAC meetings are a good place to see what good governance looks like on a regular basis. On some governmental bodies, the staff provides select information to a committee to reach the conclusion that the staff wants. URAC chair Brian Hooper understands it should be the other way around. He and his fellow board members have been figuring out for themselves what information they need, then asking staff to help gather that information. From the chair’s and committee members’ actions, it’s clear their method is working.
At the April 27 meeting, Chairman Hooper had decided again that there would be no presentations, but rather a discussion among the committee members. Hooper wanted his fellow committee members to hear from each other and to learn about each other’s ideas for prioritizing the committee’s future course of action. In order to facilitate the discussion, Mr. Hooper decided on an outline that was based on topics that the committee had discussed at prior URAC meetings. To help him draft the outline, Hooper had met earlier in the week with the committee’s chief staff person, Chuck Tessier. The outline was in three parts. The first listed the seven areas of the CRA that had previously been identified for each member’s special attention; the next listed projects that had been mentioned in prior discussions; and the last listed possible actions that had been previously discussed at URAC meetings.
To start the meeting, the chair called on Mr. Tessier to summarize the issues and vision that had previously been discussed by the committee for the seven areas of the city listed in the outline. The seven areas were Belmont-DeVilliers, Central Core, East Waterfront, Seville/Aragon, Gateway, Old East Hill and the West End, which include Bruce Beach and the former Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant site. When Tessier’s remarks veered more to his own vision, rather than a summary of the issues that the committee discussed, committee member John Myslak was the first to set everyone straight.
Myslak pointed out that one of the goals of the committee was to come up with projects that could be achieved in 3-5 years and would increase the tax base for the CRA. Myslak then talked about information that he had gathered on his own about the development of the East Waterfront area. He reported on his talk with a hotelier about what it would take to bring that sort of business to the area. He told his fellow committee members that he would like to get more information about this sort of project and would like someone with hotel experience to talk to the committee about it, and he looked to the staff to help make that happen. Mr. Myslak also had spoken to folks about the marina east of the Fish House, called Pitt’s Slip, and told the committee that he had learned that a breakwater system was a project that might help to make the Slip a more active marina.
Committee member Teresa Dos Santos talked about the Gateway area and connecting the Tech Park site with vacant property along Ninth Avenue to make the area even more attractive to high tech business.
Next member Shanna Neuhaus responded to Tessier’s West End summary during which he had talked about the need for more housing in the area. Neuhaus clarified that her vision for the West End was more in line with the current CRA plan which called for a park opening to Bruce Beach. Neuhaus said she wanted no development south of Main Street so that the public would have expanded free access to Bruce Beach. (This would obviously preclude developments like the fish hatchery proposed for Bruce Beach last May, which was not mentioned and seems to have fallen through.) In addition, Neuhaus said that she wanted to preserve the vista of the waterfront when coming from the north, and she referenced the Audubon Park in New Orleans.
Preserving the view to the waterfront led to a discussion of the ECUA property and the level of density for the area and what the city’s role should be regarding site control when the city does not own property.
At this point, Hooper reiterated his concern that the committee had not begun drafting their report due to Mayor Hayward at the end of June — only four meetings away. He suggested that he be given approval to request a 2-3 month extension of the deadline in order to complete the work of the committee. The committee members voted unanimously to approve a request for a 3 month extension which would take the deadline to the beginning of October. Following the meeting, Hooper emailed Travis Peterson, the mayor’s spokesperson, and made the extension request of the mayor. In the email, Hooper said that “given the magnitude and importance of our task — and my personal desire to make the final product polished for clarity — we think this is a reasonable request given our scope and mission. As an aside, if the Mayor would like any sort of formal status update or general preliminary findings we can provide that at any point.” As of Thursday, May 3, Hooper is still awaiting the mayor’s response.
Due to time constraints, the committee did not get to its final item of business, which was to be a discussion of the framework for the final report. To facilitate that discussion, Hooper had asked Chuck Tessier to draft a hypothetical example of an action item recommendation. Tessier titled the document that he prepared a “Policy for Use of Public Land: Pensacola Fla.,” and it was provided to the committee and the public at the end of the meeting without review or discussion. However, as Mr. Hooper clarified, the document is only intended as a hypothetical example of a final report’s layout; the text of the document is unimportant and contained no recommendations or policies determined by the committee. Even the percentages and property values stated in the document were made up.
As usual, before adjourning the meeting, the public was invited to provide the committee with its input. Several audience members offered their thoughts. In a salute to the influence he believes URAC has, one person suggested that the committee end the United States’ sanctions against Cuba and open the port up to that country.
The next meeting of URAC will not be on a Friday. Instead, the meeting will be held on Thursday, May 10.