For drivers heading along South Congress Avenue, the view offers a hodgepodge of empty office buildings, decaying industrial complexes and auto shops. But city marketing gurus see the nearly 4-mile stretch south of Atlantic Avenue as an opportunity to create what they are now calling the “Delray Innovation Corridor.”
The renaming is a step forward to creating the long-delayed business corridor stretching from Congress Avenue north to Atlantic Avenue. Since it was envisioned nearly a decade ago, the idea has been to attract a mix of office space, commercial and residential development to help the area’s sagging property tax values.
“Everyone knows that Delray Beach is a cool, hip place to be,” said Vin Nolan, the city’s economic development director. “We want to connect that feeling and that concept that exists downtown out in the corridor.”
With a $106 million drop in property values along the corridor in the past six years, Nolan said it’s imperative to diversify the city’s tax base so residents don’t carry the burden of paying for services such as police, fire and other amenities.
“Also any time you bring new businesses to the area it helps existing businesses,” said Gregg Weiss, who is on the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce’s economic development committee.
The strategy has several layers: City officials dipped into its reserves to establish a $1 million economic development fund to finance incentives geared to aggressively attract new businesses. Consultants are also trying to create a buzz around the area, touting its proximity to downtown and to Boca Raton’s corporate hub just to the south.
The strategy is similar to Boca Raton’s MedUTech effort — a partnership created to attract businesses in the medicine, education and technology industries. But Delray Beach wants to focus on businesses that would better fit its identity: creative industries, software technology and anything that could complement the emphasis the city has placed on culture and the arts.
“We would like some of that,” Nolan said of the biotechnology industries that have set up shop in Boca Raton. “But we also want to capitalize on what Delray Beach has created.”
The idea of creating a district that could attract the work force as well as businesses that could relocate their national or international headquarters to the area began during former Mayor Jeff Perlman’s administration from 2000-2007.
He attended planning sessions with the Florida Design Institute at Florida Atlantic University, which in 2007 resulted in city officials approved new zoning for 225 acres along Congress Avenue. Commissioner voted to increase density and allow developers to build condos and apartments next to restaurants, dry cleaners and hair salons. The new zoning also allowed taller buildings than elsewhere in the city.
In 2008, The Alta Congress Project, a 451-unit rental project just south of Atlantic Avenue, was the first to be approved in the new district. After a few years’ delay, the project is back on track and will begin construction soon.
Perlman said that for the corridor to be successful, a plan similar to the revitalization of the downtown needs to be implemented.
“Delray Beach is a food-and-beverage success story,” he said, pointing to the popularity of Atlantic Avenue. “Our challenge is to go beyond that and develop other opportunities. We could be another Austin, Texas; or Boulder, Colo.”
He said there needs to be major infrastructure improvements with landscaped medians and linear parks. Perlman also said that if the city is successful in relocating small creative businesses to its downtown, those businesses would eventually grow and look to relocate to Congress Avenue.
More than creating a diverse tax base and attracting new businesses, Perlman said city officials need to create a city that would welcome back native young talent after college.
“We spend a fortune in education in Palm Beach County and our best and brightest go off to college. Many would love to come back but they just don’t see the job opportunities here,” he said. “You want to create a community where your young people have an option of coming back.”
But ultimately, Nolan said it will be up to the various property owners along the corridor to buy into the plan and wait patiently for developers and tenants that would contribute to the vision.
“At the end of the day, the property owners will make the decision,” he said. “If they don’t want to play, we can’t implement the strategy.”
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