Delray’s CRA Exec Resigns, Boca National Options, and Delray Keeps Looking For City Manager

golf money

Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Jeff Costello has resigned, effective Aug. 23.

Costello notified the CRA board in a letter Tuesday. Under his contract, he could leave in 30 days. By extending the time, Costello makes it possible for the board to choose a successor in time to avoid naming an interim director and provide what he called “a smooth transition.”

Jeff Costello

Costello was due for his annual evaluation next month. As I reported, four of the seven CRA board members—including Mayor Shelly Petrolia—rated Costello under 70 percent on their written evaluations. In his letter, Costello— who spent 12 years at the CRA—cited “amazing achievements,” such as the IPIC theater/corporate headquarters. The CRA assembled the properties that make up the site.   

I will have more on this in my Thursday post.

Boca National designs up for review

Today’s meeting on the proposed Boca Raton National Golf Course might be over quickly. Or, there might actually be progress.

Board members of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will ask city council members for something to which the council is unlikely to agree. The board will ask the council to bless the district’s design for Boca National.

Approval almost certainly won’t come, because the council and top city administrators don’t like the plan. They believe that—at $28 million— the plan is far too expensive and thus would penalize the city, from which the district wants possibly half that cost. They believe that the design restricts the ability to plan the city’s northeast section. They will be diplomatic, but, based on my conversations over the last few months, the city doesn’t trust the district on Boca National.

If the council doesn’t approve the design, the council definitely won’t grant the district’s second request—money for construction of the course. So what could be the outcome of this long-delayed meeting?

A city takeover. At the council’s May 13 workshop meeting, there was strong sentiment for the city to assume control of the project. “I see no path forward,” City Manager Leif Ahnell said, referring to the impasse between the city and the district as the project stands. “There’s no good option,” said Councilman Jeremy Rodgers.

Councilman Andy Thomson cited municipal courses in other affluent cities, such as Winter Park, that were built for “much less.” Council members don’t like the proposed $3.4 million clubhouse or its location at Northwest Second Avenue and Jeffrey Street.

But how would a takeover work? The city issued $19 million in bonds to finance the district’s $24 million purchase of the former Boca Teeca golf course. The district paid $5 million in cash and is reimbursing the city for the bond payments. The roughly $1.6 million annual payments end in 2032.

Ahnell surprised council members during their recent goal-setting session when he noted that the district was legally obligated only for the next payment. District Interim Executive Director Briann Harms, though, assured council members on May 13 that the agency would continue the reimbursements no matter what happens.

So a takeover could shift control of the design to the city—and also the cost of construction. Money probably is the lesser issue. Council members seemed willing to contribute city money, even though Harms’ predecessor—Art Koski — had said often that the district could buy the land, build the course, keep up with all other projects and not raise taxes.

Board members now say that Koski was right—until the construction cost spiked. Koski’s promise, though, further undermined council confidence in the district.

The Ocean Strand option. As I reported in March, Boca Raton-based Compson Associates met with council members and district board members about buying the 15-acre Ocean Strand property from the district for $45 million. The district would use $15 million for Boca National and $30 million to carry out the master plan for Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

Compson has done no follow up. The city would have to approve Compson’s plan for a Ritz-Carlton hotel and marina on the west side of Ocean Strand. No elected official has embraced the idea. But it could come back. And two board members have suggested that the city could buy Ocean Strand.

Nothing happens. This outcome is least likely, but the council and the district could deadlock if the district won’t budge on that $28 million price. The council could delay the closing of Boca Raton Municipal for a year and wait.

How did we get here? Five years ago, Boca Raton got a couple of unsolicited offers for the 200 acres that make up the western municipal course. When more developers showed interest and the price went up, the city seemed ready for a simple deal: sell the course, spend the windfall and have just the short course at Red Reef Park.

Then former Mayor Susan Haynie, who was running for a second term as mayor in March 2017, said she wanted to “keep golf in Boca.” Then residents of Boca Teeca, whose lack of interest in golf had led to the closing of Ocean Breeze, began clamoring for public purchase of the course. They wanted to keep Lennar— which had a contract for purchase—from putting up homes.

At one point, it looked wonderful. The city still would get the windfall and local golfers would have an even better course.

But now the proposed greens fees are much higher than at Boca Municipal. The district says that’s because the course will be so much better. The council, though, doesn’t like the high price of getting so much better.

The district could have kept tighter control of Koski’s rein. The council could have refused to finance a purchase that the city considered too costly. None of that happened. The two sides will attempt to unsnarl things today.

Delray manager search

Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

Delray Beach is going ahead with the search for a permanent city manager. But Interim Manager Neal de Jesus still might be the choice.

At the city’s goal-setting session last month, City Commissioner Ryan Boylston raised the issue of offering the job to de Jesus. Boylston had support from Bill Bathurst and Adam Frankel. Mayor Shelly Petrolia, though, worried about how it would look to just stop the search.

Though Boylston had planned to put the topic on a meeting agenda, he changed his mind. “It would need to be 5-0,” he said, meaning unanimous agreement. So the search consultant has sent out the application.

As the consultant puts it, the “award-winning city of Delray Beach” wants a manager with “a verifiable and highly successful track record of inclusive and transparent leadership in guiding an organization.” Applicants should have at least seven years of “progressively responsible administrative experience.”

The deadline for applications is June 28. The consultant, Ralph Andersen and Associates, then will cut the field to finalists. If the commission doesn’t find any of them attractive, the option to pick de Jesus will remain.

Delray’s punch list

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Nothing reveals more about a city’s priorities than its budget. For next year, Delray Beach proposes to spend an impressive amount on capital projects. More impressive is how much work will remain.

Roughly $8 million would go toward the new fire station on Linton Boulevard and an emergency management center on the same site. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, the current emergency management center leaked and power was sporadic. For all of Delray Beach’s progress, that is a dangerous deficiency in city services. The city will need another $8.4 million to complete the project.

The Osceola Park neighborhood would get $6.7 million worth of long-delayed improvements but would need $7.6 million more. Water and sewer upgrades would receive $4.3 million toward a goal of $35 million. Tropic Isles, which a study identified as the area most prone to rising seas and flooding, would get $2 million toward what the city projects as a needed $25.2 million in projects.

Then there’s Pompey Park. The master plan calls for a $28 million makeover. The 2019-20 capital budget proposal allocates just $2 million as a down payment. You can see why Commissioner Boylston likes the idea of a large, citywide bond campaign. Even with revenue from the sales tax surcharge, Delray beach needs more revenue to complete a wish list that reads more like a needs list.

Match Point nears resolution

Francis Tiafoe celebrates after defeating Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2018 Delray Beach Open.

Delray Beach’s lawsuit against Match Point could be nearing a settlement. The city commission met this month and last month in closed session. Delray Beach wants better terms for the 25-year contract that Match Point secured in 2005 to manage the annual pro tennis tournament. City commissioners—two of whom took campaign contributions from Match Point—have said that they want to keep the tournament in town.

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