Brian Rewis | Economic Development

February 01, 2023   |   Brokerage

Lakeland Director of Community and Economic Development, Brian Rewis reveals how the balance between commercial and residential development impacts growing communities.

In recent history, commercial and residential development has affected local communities in massive ways.  In this episode, Linda and Brian Rewis, Director of Community and Economic Development for the City of Lakeland, discuss the trend of development, affordable housing, and the impact both have on shaping the city. 

Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.

How did you become Director? Twenty years ago, I was hired to work for the city [of Lakeland]. At the time, I managed the Code Enforcement division for about four years. Later, I also inherited our Affordable Housing activities. I managed that for about seven years through the Great Recession. Programs like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program allowed us to help not only our most vulnerable population, but also some of the lenders who took a beating through the recession. We acquired a lot of foreclosed properties, redeveloped them, and put them in the hands of income eligible and qualified homebuyers.

In 2015, I moved to city hall and took on the business side of our Building Inspection division. I wasn’t a building official or a contractor, but I did keep an eye on the bottomline as I worked through different business processes. It really gave me a lot of exposure to the balance of our department staff. 

Then in late 2018, our most recent director, Nicole Travis, promoted me to Assistant Director of the department. I served there for about three years before Travis was promoted into the city manager's office and I was ultimately promoted to Director.

How have your prior roles equipped you as Director? So much of our department and its mission is really about quality of life and relationships. This includes code enforcement even though it's not as loved as other parts in our department. I've had some really good mentors and leaders along the way who, I'm blessed to say, saw some aptitude in me to keep taking on more and more, until I got to this position now as Director. I’ve got my hands full every day, but it's extremely exciting and rewarding. I get up every day, just ready to tackle the day's challenges.

What are the objectives of your department? The default back to the city's vision and mission is about vibrancy, diversity, and quality of life. That's every activity our department does. It’s the furtherance of that quality of life mission through mobility, transportation, economic prosperity, physical conditions, and looking after those that are less fortunate. We have an affordable housing office that handles a lot of federal and state grant programs that have some of our own CRA money in it. Developing new affordable housing units has taken on a huge increased priority as the City Commission has identified housing affordability as one of our primary objectives.

Who are your clients? Our clients are all 120,400 citizens of the city of Lakeland. That's the newest number from the University of Florida's Bureau for Economic and Business Research. Every one of them is our customer. Even if they're not interacting directly with us, we are acting on their behalf. We are looking out for the public's interest. Our customer clients are more directly the developers, contractors, design professionals, architects, and engineers that we interact with very frequently through the land use and zoning process, development, review, building permitting, and inspection. 

We have a lot of opportunities to serve and we’ve made tremendous strides over the last three to five years at reversing Lakeland's anti-business or anti-economic prosperity trend. We love having chances to prove that we still are looking for quality design while minimizing impacts to others. That's how we get smart growth. We find that balance so that existing residents and visitors aren't disproportionately impacted by somebody else's activities. It's a hard balance to find and if you ask 10 people, you get 10 different answers.

How do you incentivize business growth in Lakeland? Outside of CRA, we have a couple of different programs like the EDGE program. The Economic Development for Growth and Expansion program is really infrastructure dollars that have been set aside by the city to help large employers who are either coming to Lakeland or expanding within Lakeland. So the Commission has blessed that program and allowed us to assist in that regard.

What is CRA? CRA is where the bulk of the incentives lie. Jim Edwards was among the very first to work on our downtown Community Redevelopment Agency. These agencies are either a district or collection of districts that are designated as redevelopment areas. It's a fairly long political process to get there, but it involves a blight study which studies areas of disinvestment and other underserved communities. Through that process, with approval, the CRA can be created only for a very important reason. The CRA calculates the cumulative property values within the district and identifies a dollar figure. For the next 30 years, any increase in taxable property value within the district is captured by the CRA for investment. So the CRA has a budget.

Will there be a Brightline stop in Lakeland? At multiple points, we have been assured that there will one day be a Brightline stop and Lakeland. Currently, there is not a committed stop in Lakeland between the Orlando to Tampa segment of their service. They've not committed to including a Lakeland or Polk County stop, but they have committed to at least planning for a future stop.

What can other communities learn from Lakeland? Lakeland, being a very special place, is indicative of a lot of the growth that we've seen. In the past, you heard of Lakeland and saw signs for Lakeland, but it never actually stopped in town.

Our peers are looking at all the same things, we compare CRAs and we compare land use and zoning practices. In our growth, people can now work from wherever they want to and they've chosen Florida. But that has come at an expense. There is immense opposition to growth that some view has gotten out of hand. That comes back to balance and design. That's the position that our staff and ultimately our City Commission is in. Finding that balance and listening to everyone who has an interest and an opinion. We’re trying to find the middle ground that sees us continue to prosper, but also respects the rights of those that were already here.

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