DUNEDIN – The City Commission voted 4-1 Feb. 21 to move forward with a quality of life initiative that involves several projects. Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers cast the dissenting vote.
In September, Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito presented the economic proposal called the Dunedin Quality of Life Initiative to the City Commission.
This proposal included various projects that “would not only enhance the quality of life in our community, but aid our local economy and help provide the city with revenue needed to continue offering core public services to our residents and visitors,” according to a memo to the commission.
“The goal is to couple projects and initiatives that will improve the quality of people’s lives here in Dunedin by further embracing our historical heritage, the arts and education, appreciation for our wonderful natural environment, and providing more opportunities to improve challenged neighborhoods,” the memo stated. “Another goal is to embrace these kinds of activities, as thousands of cities and counties nationwide have done, as a viable form of economic development, particularly in the current economy. In raising essential revenue for core public services, I [DiSpirito] believe that this initiative is, in fact, actually a valid technique for addressing needs and not wants.”
DiSpirito’s initial proposal on Feb. 21 included four projects he hoped to get started on. The first was to help the Dunedin Historical Society get formal accreditation, a front entrance for the public, and more display space for exhibits. This would cost $200,000 to construct an annex to the city’s historic 1922 train station, the memo said.
The second item on the list was to help the Dunedin Fine Arts Center construct a $2.2 million addition. This city facility learned last summer that it is one of very few organizations in the state that had qualified for a $500,000 state grant, but that would require the city matching $500,000 in funds.
The third suggested item was funding the conversion of the historic Blatchley House at Weaver Park for $100,000 to turn it into a coastal environmental education center for both children and adults.
The last proposal for the program was a Quality Neighborhoods Program.
“(This would) assist distressed properties and neighborhoods with maintenance, code compliance and beautification,” the memo said. “Since this program would be funded with proceeds from a percentage of revenue from code enforcement fines, no new funding was required.”
There was some pressure to make a decision on at least part of the proposal immediately because the Dunedin Fine Arts Center is under deadline regarding the grant and needed to know whether or not it would get financial support from the city.
“The DFAC has pointed out that they are truly at a decision point, given that there are just three months left with which to leverage any potential city commitment if that is the commission’s pleasure, as a DFAC fundraising tool,” the memo said. “They express that there are potential donors who are first waiting to see if community representatives support the project. City support would then generate many more private sector dollars.”
Already, the center has built $4 million worth of the facility, and the city has given $150,000 of that. Also, the Historical Society and the Dunedin Fine Arts Center are both owned by the public, and therefore all improvements become the public’s property.
Having accreditation and a public front entrance would greatly help the Historical Society, DiSpirito said.
“Although the Dunedin Historical Society does not have a calendar deadline, as does the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, in my opinion, there is nevertheless a real urgency in assisting the Historical Society,” DiSpirito told the commission.
This fiscal year, the city has contributed about $150,000 to help the Historical Society keep from closing its doors. A new budget year will begin in October. The sooner the society can achieve accreditation, the sooner it will be financially sustainable, DiSpirito said.
“This will happen because with the added exhibit space, the entrance on Main Street that the new addition will bring, the society will qualify for higher-level exhibits and programs right from the Smithsonian, which will allow them to apply for funds from foundations and other sources to which the society does not currently have access because they are not accredited.”
DiSpirito added that Dunedin does not want what happened to Safety Harbor to happen here. The city of Safety Harbor had to take over and staff its heritage museum to keep it from going under.
“In my opinion, this is a strategic and smart investment for the city to make in one of its own buildings on city land to help its good partner get up on its financial legs, and they continue to provide outstanding services to our residents and guests,” DiSpirito said.
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said she supports the ideas of the Quality of Life Initiative but wants to know how it would get done. There are a few other things in the planning without answers being available yet, and she wants to know about financing in the long-term. There are long-term financing projects, such as the new fire station. Also the Dunedin Golf Club has requested the city purchase its clubhouse. There are a lot of good and necessary projects and expenses out there that are worthy of support, but she wants to make sure finding the funds would not be an issue.
“I support the projects,” Bujalski said. “I’m just nervous about the financing part of it.”
DiSpirito said that he feels confident that there will not be a problem with finding sufficient funds for the projects, although he does not know all of the technical details of specifically where all the funds will be coming from. Bujalski said she would feel more comfortable with more details.
Commissioner Ron Barnette said he supports the projects and has confidence in city staff that they will find a way to afford it.
“Speculation aside regarding affordability and whatever else we will be spending our money on, I trust the judgment of our city manager and our finance director on this,” Barnette said. “And I think we should turn our attention more specifically to the motion that we have here. There’s clear evidence that it’s a strong driver of economics – quality of life. And it adds up to be a wonderful investment. I wish I had these financial investment opportunities of my own: $500,000 and get a couple of million back. But it’s more than that. It’s more than its economic probability and that other cities adjacent to us as well as throughout the nation has shown. It speaks directly to who we are as a city. And why many of us have moved here and come here to stay. To learn, to study. to play. It breathes the very essence of Dunedin.”
Through the branding initiative the city just completed, so often it came back to arts, culture and history as the things that make us alive and love our city, Barnette said.
“I thoroughly want to be a part of leadership that recognizes that,” Barnette added.
Eggers said he supports the projects, but that it is still the middle of a difficult economic time. Also, he feels he was taken by surprise with the new expansion of the arts center, which comes so soon after a recent large expansion.
“There are lots of good concepts here, but I feel a little boxed in,” Eggers said.
Commissioner Heather Gracy said that although she is new to the commission, she was watching this for five months and knew it was coming up.
“I’ve got to tell you, I was very pleased reading Rob’s staffing about it,” Gracy said. “… It says there are a number of ways to do this and that the city can afford this initiative. I have confidence in that in as much as I have confidence in our public and private partnerships, which have made Dunedin this vibrant community. The Fine Arts Center is strong, viable, and in my opinion, is very sustainable. The accreditation that could happen with the Historical Society, I believe could make that organization soar.”
Many people from the public, including representatives from the Historical Society and the Dunedin Fine Arts Center all addressed the commission, offering support for this project and asking the commission to reinvest in the public.
Commissioner Julie Scales made a motion to go forward with this initiative but for now only in regards to the Historical Society and the Dunedin Fine Arts Center components. Bujalski wanted to include the environmental center as well, but Scales had no interest in changing the motion.
Eggers emphasized that while he supports the concept in general, he does not feel comfortable voting for it at this time. The measure passed 4-1, with Eggers dissenting.