James (Jim) Edwards, AICP is a Senior Advisor at SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler. His diverse background played a major role in the development of Lakeland’s downtown district. In this excerpt from the podcast, “Mr. Downtown” discusses the trials and obstacles faced in this intricate project.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
What happened to downtown Lakeland? It was a disaster. It suffered the same fate as many downtowns, particularly small to medium downtowns. It began in the 60s with suburban development and it declined pretty rapidly. By 1980, the ground floor vacancy was 40% and the area looked very blighted and in poor condition.
The New Florida Hotel, which is now Lake Mirror Tower, had been converted from a hotel to a retirement home in the 60s. So those were the only residents downtown. Then Lime Plaza was built; also a retirement home. Those were the only residents and they were retired people. Some were actually receiving some level of care beyond being independent.
How did you become “Mr. Downtown”? In the late 70s, the City of Lakeland and downtown property owners petitioned the legislature to create a special taxing district. It became known as the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. Immediately following, state law allowed cities to designate downtown development authorities as their Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). So, our entity was both. We had a board of directors that were elected by downtown property owners, and they served as both the board of the DDA and the board of the CRA. There was only one CRA district at that time, which was downtown Lakeland.
I was the Executive Director. The role was multifaceted and there was a need to come up with a plan to redevelop downtown. Property values were decreasing, condition of the buildings were declining, and there were a lot of issues that tended to compound one another.
We had to develop a plan. We had to make physical, noticeable changes to the downtown to make it a more attractive environment for investment. Take away some of that risk that the private sector would hopefully overcome and realize there was opportunity there. There were regulatory issues so we changed the zoning laws for downtown. Then there was the issue of impact fees, we were able to convince the city and the county to eliminate impact fees downtown.
What are impact fees? They are governmental fees for anytime new development comes along. They help cover the cost of utilities, schools, parks, law enforcement, those sorts of things. It was difficult to go into a thing where you have so little control of your neighbors. So, we created other incentives. With the CRA, there was the possibility of essentially rebating their new taxes after they made improvements to their property. The difference between their old tax and new tax we could rebate to help that gap in economic investment. We also created a historic district so that the qualifying historic buildings could receive a tax credit for rehab. So we tried to create as many incentives and reduce as many barriers as possible.
How did you manage those properties? In some cases, there were property owners that had been there for many years and did not have a mortgage. They did not have a real incentive to do anything, certainly not maintain the property. In some cases, we used peer pressure and as much influence as we could. We passed a minimum maintenance ordinance and we took on the purchase of some properties that were problematic. I was also able to use the state tax credit program to purchase the Terrace Hotel and got it into the hands of a developer who converted it back into a four star hotel. We did a similar thing with both the department stores that are now Publix and FedEx.
What was your motivation? I have to trace it all back to the fact that I grew up here. I'm a Lakeland native. I remember downtown the way it was and was very sad to see what it became. It became a lot more than a job, it was personal, it was a mission. We ruffled a few feathers along the way, but I think that was necessary in many cases. To go against the grain.
How did you get into commercial real estate? Much of what we were doing downtown was commercial real estate: overcoming problems, zoning regulations, costs, parking. I knew that process and I know the people to talk to. So, I tend to end up with listings that are difficult.
My education helped a bit. I went to the University of Florida and received a degree in landscape architecture. That involves designing outdoor spaces. You're exposed to zoning and land use and many other things.
After receiving the degree from University of Florida, I went to Florida State University, and got a graduate degree and got a graduate degree in urban planning. So I came out of school with a good foundation.
How'd you get to SVN | SRD? When I came back to Lakeland without a job. I interviewed with a couple of different folks in the commercial real estate business. The best opportunity I could see was with Saunders Ralston Dantzler. I had known Gary Ralston because he was involved in downtown redevelopment in Lakeland, all the way back to 1980. So, I had an inside view.
I joined in December of 2016 and it seems by default, I specialized in vacant commercial property. I think the thing that I bring to the table for the client is an understanding of the regulatory environment and the incentives. It's amazing how few people are aware of some of the incentives that are available for redevelopment.
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