Thursday, December 7, 2023

OSS Cost Rises and Delray’s CRA Changes its Non-profit Grant Rules

The public cost in Delray Beach for reopening Old School Square is about to get higher.

At a Sept. 23 special meeting, the city commission agreed that the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) would work with City Manager Terrence Moore and his staff on a plan under which the DDA would assume the role held for 32 years by Old School Square for the Arts. In an email Monday, DDA Executive Director Laura Simon said, “In order to properly activate the campus, funding will be needed.”

Simon’s comment should not come as a surprise. The DDA has a budget of roughly $1.5 million, all of which has been allocated for the fiscal year that began Saturday. At its peak, Old School Square for the Arts had a budget of $3.7 million. The DDA also has a small staff.

How much money will the DDA need? “We will be putting those details together,” Simon said, “as we outline the plan for season and summer.”

For those keeping score at home, the cost of evicting Old School Square for the Arts already stands at $1.3 million. That’s the cost of completing renovations to the Crest Theater. A private donor had financed the project, but the city stopped work on it in July of last year. The donor withdrew the rest of the money.

Now the city is about to contract with the DDA to operate the cultural complex. Those costs might come from the city or the community redevelopment agency (CRA), which is the city by another name. At the last CRA meeting, Mayor Shelly Petrolia wondered if there might be money in the CRA’s budget for “better lighting.”

Keeping track of the numbers will matter.

When Petrolia and city commissioners Juli Casale—who’s on the ballot in March—and Shirley Johnson terminated Old School Square’s lease of the complex, they claimed to be acting on behalf of the taxpayers. They have accused Old School Square of financial mismanagement. The group denies it.

When the lease ended, Old School Square was getting $750,000 a year from the CRA. Anything above that amount would mean that Delray Beach is paying more just to run Old School Square after evicting Old School Square. That would be on top of the $1.3 million for the Crest Theater.

Not surprisingly, at this point the DDA’s plan sounds much like what Old School Square did. The agency regularly seeks private money for sponsorships. Simon said the agency intends to recruit volunteers. “We have a strong volunteer base now,” Simon said, “with the programs and events along with the operation of the DDA’s visitor information center.”

The DDA will form a task force to make recommendations for Old School Square. Simon said it “will be made up of local art and culture industry experts, event and activation specialists, placemaking and hospitality partners along with CRA and city partners.” Though the DDA wants “to move quickly,” there is no date for when recommendations might come.

Will the DDA have a lease for Old School Square? Simon said that is “to be determined.” Since the previous lease allowed the city to end it without cause, DDA board members may not want to put the agency in such a vulnerable position.

Finally, can the DDA—which the commission agrees does a good job—take on Old School Square without losing focus on its mission of promoting downtown Delray Beach?

Simon said, “This is well within our mission and responsibilities.” The original intent of Old School Square, Simon said, “was to be a driver of redevelopment and revitalization and to drive arts and cultural activities for our community. The DDA team and board are focused and know that the arts are the highest expression of an urban experience and brings incredible value to the community itself.”

I’ll have more as details of the DDA plan—especially the numbers—become available.

Delray CRA changes rules for grants from city


Speaking of Old School Square, the CRA just changed the rules by which it gives money to non-profit groups. The changes might alarm those groups.

Since the commission ended Old School Square’s lease, the CRA—on which Petrolia, Casale and Johnson serve—has been trying to take back money that the agency paid to the group. It has seemed like piling on. Old School Square denies that it failed to submit proper documents to qualify for the money.

Other non-profits that get CRA money include the city library, Arts Garage, the Spady Museum, the city’s historical society and the chamber of commerce. All now are subject to losing their money without cause. The new agreement also gives the CRA seven years to contest previous payments.

If the non-profits really need the money, they have no choice. But taking it could cause a lot of heartburn.

Correction: “Donations” in this section was corrected to “grants”–Ed.

High hopes for New Dixie Boca improvements

The community effort to improve an overlooked section of Boca Raton continues.

In late August, Mayor Scott Singer and Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke spoke at the first meeting of what Realtor Mike Weppner calls New Dixie Boca. With money from the city, Weppner hopes that residents and landlords can agree on zoning changes for the area west of Dixie Highway between Northwest 23rd and 32nd Streets.

“We had 110 people,” Weppner said. “They told us we’d be lucky to get 30 or 40. About five people came angry. They said the city was just trying to slip something past or railroad them. They had a right to feel that way.”

Some people, Weppner said, asked, “Why don’t you just show us the plan?” As Weppner explained, however, there is no plan. This meeting and another set for Nov. 9 are attempts to create a plan from the bottom up.

Residents, Weppner said, complained about lack of code enforcement. Most of the duplexes that face Dixie Highway are rented out by absentee owners. “There are too many (Florida Atlantic University) students” in those investment properties, giving owners little reason to maintain them properly. Landscaping on city-owned land on the west side of Dixie Highway, Weppner said, “is of the lowest quality.”

Weppner’s idea is rezoning that would allow live-work businesses along Dixie. The idea of commercial development had some neighbors envisioning “dry cleaners and pubs,” but Weppner wants to draw “professional offices.”

Area neighborhoods—Boca Woods, Chatham Hills, Villa Rica and Winfield Park—have no homeowner associations. “There is no single voice,” said Weppner, who once lived in Winfield Park. Revitalization won’t happen without local support. City officials have made clear that they don’t intend to propose any ideas.

“Nothing may ever happen,” Weppner said, “but we hope to get people engaged and go from there.”

PBC school board upholds Lucia firing

A Palm Beach County jury acquitted Cindy Lucia of theft and official misconduct while she was athletic director at Olympic Heights High School in West Boca. That wasn’t enough to save her job with the school district.

At its Sept. 21 meeting, the school board upheld Superintendent Mike Burke’s recommendation to fire Lucia. She had been on the staff at Jupiter Farms Elementary School.

As athletic director, Lucia took stipends amounting to roughly $25,000. The district’s inspector general said those stipends were for work Lucia didn’t do, such as coaching teams that didn’t exist.

Lucia’s defense is that Olympic Heights’ principal approved the payments as compensation for extra work. Her supporters called it a common practice. Her attorney argued that so successfully in court, he told the board, that jurors waited after the verdict to express support for Lucia.

Before the board, Lucia begged for her job, breaking down in tears. One woman, recalling her years in foster care as the daughter of a drug-addicted mother, told board members that Lucia became her surrogate mother and saved her life.

It didn’t work, though the vote was 4-3. Board Chairman Frank Barbieri, whose district includes Olympic Heights, noted that, because of what Lucia did, other teachers who qualified for the stipends didn’t get them. “To me, that’s stealing.”

Lucia already has filed notice that she will appeal.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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