A string of recent tough decisions and moral dilemmas in the sale of city-owned properties have left some questioning if it’s time to reevaluate the process used by the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency.
LAKELAND — A string of recent tough decisions and moral dilemmas in the sale of city-owned properties have left some questioning if it’s time to reevaluate the process.
Members of the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency’s advisory board asked city officials Thursday for suggestions on how to make the sale of city-owned land more transparent and consistent. The request came three days after the city agreed to donate two Vermont Avenue lots to nonprofit Talbot House Ministries, instead of selling it for a profit.
“We did get into a bit of a sticky situation there,” Brandon Eady, a CRA advisory board member, said. “I’d like to have a conversation with the board and have us make a decision on how to dispose of properties going forward.”
The CRA advisory board heard a presentation from Brenda Reddout, executive director of Talbot House, in April requesting the city donate 912 and 920 N. Vermont Avenue to her nonprofit organization to create workforce and disabled housing. The board voted unanimously in favor of donating the land to Talbot House. It was valued at more than $160,000.
After agreeing to support the nonprofit organization’s vision, it published a legal notice that the city intended to sell the land. Lakeland-based developer Premier Housing Investment then made an offer to buy the properties for $240,000, roughly $80,000 more than its appraised value, for veterans housing.
Lakeland commissioners chose to donate the land to Talbot House and give up the potential sale. Some expressed at the May 3 public hearing that the city had already backed Reddout and her nonprofit’s plan for the affordable housing, with the organization having raised more than $350,000 to fund the project.
“We will have more opportunities like the Vermont Ave. apartments, desirable properties like Oak Street and Massachusetts Avenue,” Eady said. “I think the best thing to do for us and for the development world is to be consistent in how we dispose of those properties.”
The CRA advisory board also faced contention from a Lakeland developer whether it had fairly reviewed two competing proposals to convert the municipal parking lot on Oak Street into downtown apartments.
Matt Clark, president of Broadway Real Estate Services, criticized the CRA advisory board for considering to give its approval to a competitor’s plan without reading through either proposal. Clark and his company later withdrew its application.
“If it was 10 proposals or 10 people who returned an interest [in a property], a committee to narrow that down would make sense,” Frank Lansford, a CRA board member, said. “When it’s just two, it left us in a situation where we haven’t heard or seen the proposal. So we’re just going to take a recommendation, stamp it and move on?”
Lansford requested the city attorney’s office review whether a separate selection committee is necessary when the city only receives one or two offers to buy a property. Instead, he suggested the CRA advisory board should be allowed to make the decision of what offer is best for Lakeland.
Alis Drumgo, Lakeland CRA’s director, said the state Legislature also approved a bill that will affect how community redevelopment agencies operate. It is waiting to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Drumgo said the CRA board can take up these issues at its August meeting or annual retreat in September.
“There’s something about having a systematic process and giving developers some consistency,” said Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who sits on the CRA advisory board. “Having staff go over what our goals are collectively, as a city, maybe different CRA districts are different.”
Drumgo said he hopes to review what grants Lakeland CRA offers and how to refine incentive programs to attract developers who meet the city’s goals — like building more affordable housing.
Teresa Maio, a senior planner for the city, said a list of more than 700 city-owned properties has been whittled down to around 200 that could be sold off or used for housing projects in the future. If the city commission were to move forward with selling these lots, many would go before the CRA advisory board for its approval.
“This was our learning curve,” Eady said. “We can improve it moving forward.”
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at 863-802-7545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.