By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
City representatives from the Community Redevelopment Agency and other government officials spent Saturday morning discussing strategies for revitalizing Frenchtown, while hearing concerns from Southside residents about the lack of businesses and housing developments on their side of town.
The gathering of stakeholders in both areas took place during the final session of a two-day Economic Summit hosted by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Development of infrastructure throughout Tallahassee also was discussed, with the conversation focusing on several projects that are under way or will begin in 2020.
The subject of plans for Frenchtown ran over the one-hour limit for discussion, as a panel fielded questions about two major developments. The first is already being constructed by Big Bend Community Development Corp, while an even larger second plan is headed to the CRA for consideration this week.
The first day of the summit focused more on individual financial growth and an hour-long discussion on opportunities for minority and small businesses. Northwest Florida Black Business Investment Corporation led the discussion on how consumers could take more control of their spending.
“This has been a weekend of great hope and determination,” said Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor at Bethel and the brainchild behind the Frenchtown project. “We talked about how we make stronger and better entrepreneurs and how we make sure that Blacks and women’s businesses become successful in Tallahassee.
“For many years people have talked about how we make Frenchtown strong economically, socially and politically. The way forward is to bring the business owners together with Bethel and forge the vision.”
Stakeholder in the Frenchtown project, Frenchtown Development Partners, gave a glimpse of what’s to expect with an engineer’s rendering of plans for the inclusive community. Plans call for development of an entire block between Martin Luther King Blvd. and Macomb Street from east to west and Tennessee Street to Virginia Street.
Some of the existing businesses will be a part of the community, while a few major shops and restaurants will be included, along with housing.
“The idea is to give people a reason and a purpose to come to Frenchtown,” said attorney Harold Knowles, who is on the Frenchtown Development Partners’ team. “You can live, work, play or stay. We will be bringing families back to the urban core.”
The planned development has been on the drawing board for about two years, raising questions about its status. However, CRA Executive Director Roxanne Manning’s response was that a project of that magnitude does take time to come to fruition.
“This is going to happen,” Knowles said. “This is not being done by happenstance. There are a lot of movements behind the scene to bring this to fruition. While you may not hear about it, there is work going on.”
The project has the support of Tom Lewis, executive director of the Big Bend Community Development Corp. Lewis’s company has already started construction on the Landmark housing development less than a block north of the proposed mixed-use project.
Lewis said he sees both communities helping in the revitalizing of Frenchtown. They will encourage businesses to set up shop in the area, he said. “It brings people,” he said. “You can’t open up a store without people.”
At one point, Southside resident Dianne Williams-Cox questioned why her community isn’t being considered for the same kind of development as seen in Frenchtown and Gaines Street. Daryl Jones, deputy director of the office of Economic Vitality, immediately reminded Williams-Cox that there has been some pushback on developers’ plans for the Southside.
“We have the responsibility to bring this project or we can sit on the sidelines and let somebody from ‘Dumptruck Island’ Idaho come in and decide what they want your community to look like,” Jones said. “We have a responsibility to be more proactive in response to this.
“If we don’t start it and drive it, somebody else will do it.”
Of course community development will require infrastructure changes. There are plenty of those in the works for Tallahassee, said Ben Pingree, director of PLACE. One of the major projects is the completion of Capital Circle, which he said should begin in 2020.
In all, there are five infrastructure projects on the drawing board, he said. “With these projects, we are not talking about road widening,” Pingree said. “We are not talking about storm water ponds. We don’t do things that way. We want to make sure that any infrastructure project that we do is beautiful. We want it to be an amenity.
“If you’re in the neighborhood adjacent to it we want it to be reflective of those values that are important to you. We want you to be proud of that project when it’s done. Period.”