FMH Fawcett Memorial Hospital presented a check to TEAM PC to pay for Neighborhood Watch signs a few months back. Tom is presenting the check to Sheriff Bill Cameron, with Susan and Gary Grey, who is also part of the committee.
Charlotte County Expedites Redevelopment of Port Charlotte’s Medical Community
PORT CHARLOTTE—When community leaders recognized the continuing deterioration of the heart of Port Charlotte commerce, they decided to make a drastic change that involved bringing together major players who are often competitors. (See related story below.)
The ambitious plan started with the rewriting of “Smart Charlotte 2050 Plan” in 2008 and gained momentum last September, when the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the 1,100-acre parkside area as a Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). Two private hospitals making continuous capital improvements anchor the area, which also includes the nearly abandoned but potentially viable Promenades shopping center, the aging Charlotte County Cultural Center, 800 businesses and 8,000 residents.
SIDEBAR: Citizens’ Master Plan for Port Charlotte
- Enhance District Weed and Seed Program.
- Enhance law and code enforcement, and property maintenance regulations.
- Implement Neighborhood, Business and Park Watch Programs.
- Regulate alcohol and tobacco use in district parks.
- Transform Harbor and Olean roadways into grand urban boulevards.
- Transform McGuire and Lake Betty parks into destination attractions.
- Establish pocket parks
- Install interconnecting multi-use trails.
- Connect district areas with multi-use bridges.
- Update lighting standards.
- Establish a tree canopy and other features to cool the district area.
- Install signature gateways, directional signs and lighting features.
- Beautify the district with trees, landscaping and decorative art.
- Install district-wide WIFI.
- Clean up Sunshine Lake and Sunshine Waterway.
- Provide business improvement and redevelopment incentives for properties district-wide.
SOURCE: Citizens’ Master Plan, Charlotte County.
After a series of charrettes held in February and March, where the overwhelming request from residents was to make the area “a true destination instead of a place for medical appointments,” the “Smart Charlotte” plan officially took effect in mid-June.
On Aug. 16, county commissioners unanimously approved a $35 million, 20-year Citizens’ Master District Redevelopment Plan for the CRA, written by Jim Fendrick, Charlotte County’s concurrency manager.
TEAM Port Charlotte, a 501 (c)(3) organization, was formed to use community tax funds to revitalize the area. Among the volunteer board members: Fawcett Memorial Hospital CEO Tom Rice, who was elected vice president; Joe Clancy, CEO of Peace River Regional Medical Center; and Pat Garritson, executive director of the Charlotte County Medical Society.
“The stars were aligned on this project,” said Susan Swanson, president of TEAM Port Charlotte, and a former neighborhood redevelopment specialist for Charlotte County and retired parole officer from Detroit, Mich. “The right people got on board. They recognized that in the last four or five years, this area has reflected a microcosm of America’s plight with foreclosures and abandoned housing in disrepair. It seems to be such a grim area.”
Among the eight conditions of existing decline identified as detrimental to the area’s long-term vitality and sustainability—crime (primarily drug-related), fire and emergency medical calls, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, deterioration of buildings, and Florida Building Code violations—the short-term district strategy involves enhancing crime prevention and property maintenance code enforcement. For example, poor line-of-sight visibility makes McGuire Park a magnet for criminal activity.
“We’re getting code compliance more on board to work with us on major issues involving rentals and absentee landlords,” said Swanson, noting thate 54 percent of the area’s housing is rental property. “The sheriff’s office has stepped up to the plate by assigning a dedicated officer to the Parkside District.”
The Port Charlotte Plaza, now called the Promenades Mall, was built in 1959 as the county’s first major shopping center and initially included a grocery store, pharmacy, and retail and service stores. Like most urban malls, it fell out of favor when a suburban mall was built in the county. Earlier this year, unable to successfully lease space, Promenades owners divested themselves of the property. However, “the new owner is excited about working with us, re-landscaping and further developing the property,” said Swanson. “Winn Dixie (in the Promenades) is undergoing a $6 million renovation. Those are good signs.”
A common misconception is that senior citizens dominate the area population, said Swanson, who inherited—and lives in—a three-generation house in the area built in 1961. “Instead, it’s an evenly distributed population among all age groups. Probably one-third is under the age of 20; working adults—a mix of blue-collar and professionals—represent one-third; and retirees and seniors comprise one-third.”
Swanson is working with county administrators to secure funding for the project via a combination of Community Development Block Grants, federal transportation funds, environmental funding, and money available via the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program. In 1977, Florida lawmakers authorized the use of Tax Increment Financing as a method to pay for redevelopment within CRAs. Charlotte County is seeking enterprise zone status for the CRA, and considering a one-cent sales tax for plan implementation during the next sales tax referendum.
TEAM Port Charlotte is working with the federally funded volunteer group, Habitat’s Brush of Kindness, which funds up to $4,500 per residence for repairs that homeowners cannot afford, such as replacing a window, a front door, gutters or repairing the roof.
“They put a lien on your house for five years, and if you’re still there, the loan is forgiven,” explained Swanson. “It’s a really terrific program.”
The not-for-profit organization is also working with the county to get land donated for community gardens, and is collaborating with AARP for federal funding to implement a transit option, such as a trolley system with stopping places at both hospitals.
“The hospitals are working with us to promote affordable housing in the district for their employees,” said Swanson. “We’re also going to get all these baby boomers down here who want a cute, snug home in a harbor community.”
When asked about undertaking such a tremendous project on a volunteer basis, Swanson said the answer is simple: “If you want change, you have to facilitate change.”
One of the oldest communities in Florida with activity dating to the 1600s, Port Charlotte is located midway between Sarasota and Fort Myers and situated between the Peace and Myakka rivers with access to both Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico from approximately 165 miles of navigable waterways.
Charlotte County was established in 1921, and was considered largely agricultural through the 1940s. In the 1950s, General Development Corporation and the Mackle Brothers began developing the area as a residential winter getaway for “snow birds.”By successfully marketing “10 dollars down and 10 dollars a month” for an 80-foot-by-125-foot lot, Port Charlotte boomed.
“When I first started coming down here as a kid, it was perfection,” said Susan Swanson, president of TEAM Port Charlotte. “All the homes were painted pastels. It was the new Florida retirement community for folks from northern states, mainly Michigan. Our whole family came down and it was like a great winter camp.”
In 2009, CNN Money named Port Charlotte the Best Place to Retire in America.