Transforming south side among top Chamber conference sessions

From the Tallahassee Democrat

AMELIA ISLAND – No single thing is going to transform Tallahassee’s south side.

During Saturday’s standing-room breakout session at the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Conference, panelists rattled off details behind key measures that could make a difference.

A $45-million redevelopment is moving forward at the Orange Avenue Apartments, a public housing property. Improvements to the 40-year site managed by the Tallahassee Housing Authority is split into five on-site phases and one off-site phase. Construction could begin for phase I next year.

Government and economic officials see this as the first major step to change in South City, a low-income neighborhood plagued by crime, poverty and a long list of disparities, including infant mortality.

The city is in the middle of a $5.5 million land deal to purchase the Towne South Shopping Center on South Monroe Street to be the new home of the Tallahassee Police Department.

Another measure, already adopted in Atlanta and other cities, is Purpose Built Communities. It takes a holistic approach to closing the achievement gap through a cradle-to-college educational approach that requires major community buy in.

And Opportunity Zones are the latest government-led attempt to entice businesses to invest in low-income areas identified in the Census-tract.

Florida has 427 areas identified as Opportunity Zones, including eight in Leon County. These are low-income Census tracts that have been identified as “ready for investment.”

“Now that these tracts have been identified, there will be folks and all types of organizations, from individuals to banks to investment firms to companies,” said Cissy Proctor, executive director of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “The Chamber could set up one. They’re very flexible regarding who can set up one of these funds.”

There’s a 10-year deferment on the Opportunity Zone funds. Proctor said the program isn’t in place yet since states are waiting for the IRS to offer more guidance. But Saturday’s workshop offered a glimpse into what’s possible.

“It is a way for folks to defer or potentially eliminate taxes paid on capital gains if it’s placed in one of these funds,” she said.

The south side session was one of eight breakout sessions sandwiched in between keynote speeches and followed by leisure time at the pool, Atlantic Ocean and on the volleyball court. Other breakout sessions touched on hot topics or allowed the audience to pepper pros with questions on various industries and business issues.

Topics ranged from local housing and development trends to building a workforce for the future. The workshop on transforming the south side was one of the most attended of Saturday’s breakout sessions.

“Tallahassee’s south side has been a subject of much conversation in recent years and today there are a number of initiatives underway that could provide a needed spark for more jobs, increased safety, and more affordable housing,” said Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick. “All of these are part of creating a more vibrant and equitable community.”

In the south side session, the Purpose Built Community was herald as a viable option that’s based on a proven model.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said many people in the session are familiar with the concept and curious about how the south side can improve, along with a potential role in it.

“All of these efforts need to happen simultaneously. What happens is we go over here and focus on education and forget about the health part,” said Ausley, who’s leading the steering committee in the local effort. “Then we go over here, focus on the housing part and forget about the education. You have to focus on all of it at the same time to be able to achieve the results that you need, and that takes everybody.”

Purpose Built Communities CEO David Edwards said there are several “boxes to check” before the organization can select Tallahassee as a potential Purpose Built Community. Although, he said the city is past the halfway point in the process.

Financing for housing must be secured, which isn’t confirmed yet for the redevelopment of the Orange Avenue Apartments. Secondly, there must be a specific plan in place for the elementary and early childcare components that would be a part of the program.

Lastly, there needs to be a leadership “quarterback” organization, an existing or new nonprofit, which would become the organization’s network partner.

A major investment ranging from $100 to $300 million is required to build a foundation for a Purpose Built Community. Edwards said it stems from public and private sector contributions, including new schools, housing and public infrastructure.

“You guys have made huge progress, but I’m hesitant to give any prediction as to when it will happen,” Edwards said. “These are complicated issues. It’s up to the local leadership and the community to figure these issues out.”