Spring Hill timeline
- 1997 Weed and Seed
- 2001 CFCDC does initial assessment for business incubator
- 2002 Annexation fails
- 2003 Community resource center opens
- 2005 CRA formed; Weed and Seed ends
- 2007-08 Recession hits CRA fund
- 2009 Doug Lee dies
- 2010 Revenue for Spring Hill CRA hits zero and stays there for six straight years
- 2012 CFCDC pulls out of contract
- 2016 CRA makes reprioritization plan
About a month ago, the Woodland Towers retirement home on DeLand’s south side applied for exemption from property taxes — and got it.
The retirement facility will save something like $176,000 a year.
For the Spring Hill Community Redevelopment Agency, the news isn’t so good.
Woodland Towers was the most valuable piece of real estate paying taxes into the CRA fund for improving the Spring Hill neighborhood.
That fund will now plummet from a projected $147,000 this year to $50,000 — just when it had been starting to grow along with property values.
DeLand was depending on that fund to pay for operations at the new Spring Hill Resource Center being built at Adelle and Beresford avenues.
“We can’t catch a break,” DeLand Assistant Manager Mike Grebosz said.
This setback is the latest to derail attempts to build up Spring Hill, to help the community overcome decades of neglect that date to the end of slavery.
Three government mechanisms were tried over the years: a federal program called Weed and Seed, annexation of Spring Hill into DeLand, and the latest, the Community Redevelopment Agency tax model that has been wildly successful in reforming Downtown DeLand.
There have been bright spots along the way, and the Spring Hill Resource Center is among them. But, by and large, decades later, Spring Hill remains steeped in poverty, its public infrastructure of roads, streetlights and utilities incomplete.
This story explores three ways DeLand has tried to make a difference.
A lot of weeding, but not too much seeding
By 1997, Spring Hill’s poverty and crime statistics were so disturbing that the DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce pinpointed Spring Hill as one of its top priorities.
One of the early programs was a federal grant known as Weed and Seed. The money — about $225,000 a year — was supposed to “weed” out crime by boosting police funding and getting rid of dilapidated buildings. It was also supposed to pay to “seed” resources in the community.
Spring Hill residents remember Weed and Seed as a disappointment.
“They weeded the area, but didn’t seed it,” said Bo Davenport, a City of DeLand retiree who lives in Spring Hill. “Nothing was built in place of what was torn down.”
Tearing down buildings displaced mom-and-pop stores that never recovered. A police substation was built and officers stationed there, but building positive relationships between the police and the residents was overlooked.
“They set up that substation, but all they did was target the minority area,” Davenport said. “It was supposed to weed out the blight and then revamp the community. And that didn’t happen.”
Donna Banks worked in conjunction with the Weed and Seed program in those days.
“Go into any area with social inequality… it’s going to be hard,” Banks said. “That building was a police substation that the community never wanted.”
Seven years after Weed and Seed began in Spring Hill, a 2004 study by the Stetson Institute for Social Research noted that “… the discussion on and development of efforts to combat crime are ongoing and vigorous, but results in terms of reduced criminal activity are not in evidence.”
The weeding had ineffectively targeted crime, shuttered businesses, and left residents with vacant lots. Any seeds, except for the resource center, failed to germinate.
The 2004 study also noted that the labyrinth of funding sources and records makes it unclear how exactly the Weed and Seed funds were used all those years earlier, before the program ended in the 2005-06 fiscal year.
Would Spring Hill thrive in DeLand?
While the police targeted crime in Spring Hill, the city moved forward on the clearest path to “seeding’’ — annexation.
Though considered part of DeLand since its beginning, most of Spring Hill is actually in unincorporated Volusia County, under the jurisdiction of county government, with patches served by the City of DeLand.
The community languished, some say, partly because of the difficulty of getting anything done with two governments involved. Annexation would end that.
The city and county now have interlocal agreements that have smoothed delivery of some services. But the separation is still there.
“Spring Hill has never been accepted as part of DeLand,” Davenport said. “We were never included in being represented as residents of DeLand.”
An attempt at annexation in 2002 was supposed to change all that.
For the historically African-American area of Spring Hill, annexation would mean essential infrastructure improvements for the long-neglected area: streetlights, improved roads and sewer connections. Residents would be able to vote in city elections, and run for office in city government.
But because so many properties in Spring Hill are valued low enough that they pay little or no property taxes, to make the massive project work financially, the city targeted a far larger area than Spring Hill for annexation. Businesses along Woodland Boulevard, and a big chunk of southeast DeLand were included.
Business owners in the commercial area, landlords who owned property in Spring Hill but didn’t live there, and the primarily white, middle-class residents of the rural area to the east feared annexation would cost them money.
A political action committee was formed, called Coalition Against Annexation. According to residents and others, representatives of the committee went door to door telling residents to vote against annexation because it would raise their property taxes.
Bo Davenport said confusion was rampant.
“They didn’t even know what they were voting for,” he said.
Prohibited from campaigning on behalf of annexation, city officials held workshops to combat misinformation.
A quiet war ensued, buoyed by private funding. At one point, residents told of being offered $5 if they promised to vote against annexation.
“They told me that, and I said, ‘Just five dollars?’” longtime resident James Cusack said. “That’s all it took?”
Even after a targeted anti-annexation campaign by a mostly white population, the majority of residents in the historically African-American Spring Hill area voted to annex into DeLand. Residents outside Spring Hill, however, voted it down.
The majority ruled; annexation failed. A $4.6 million redevelopment plan was torpedoed, and funds were diverted.
DeLand tries the method that helped its Downtown district
Spring Hill CRA revenues, by fiscal year
- FY05-06 $135,975
- FY06-07 $261,772
- FY07-08 $347,482
- FY08-09 $295,626
- FY09-10 $196,571
- FY10-11 to FY15-16 $0
- FY16-17 $28,412
The failure of annexation in 2002 did spark some renewed effort on Spring Hill’s behalf.
With the help of Stetson University President Doug Lee, Mount Zion AME Church, the Boys and Girls Club, and many other organizations and community leaders, it seemed as if Spring Hill could still turn the corner — to fully invest in the process of seeding the community.
The City of DeLand took over the administrative duties for Weed and Seed, and promptly subcontracted the bulk of the work to an outside company, the Central Florida Community Development Corp., or CFCDC.
The substation was turned into a community resource center, which quickly became one of Spring Hill’s most important assets, providing assistance on everything from how to write a résumé to CPR training. The CFCDC began snapping up what they called “nuisance properties” to improve and rent, in an effort to generate independent streams of revenue.
Meanwhile, the city and county began talking about how to work together in Spring Hill.
“The city and the county looked for alternatives, and landed upon what was the first joint city/county CRA in the state,” DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said.
Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, redirect property taxes to create a special fund for improvements in targeted areas.
DeLand had already seen the power of a CRA to create upgrades and spark investment. Downtown DeLand had been benefiting from the funding mechanism since 1984.
The CRA model is funded through tax-increment financing. A base taxable value of the property within the CRA is set when the CRA is created, and any taxes on increases in property value go directly into the CRA fund, instead of to the various other taxing agencies. The CRA fund can be used only for improvements in the defined zone.
The Spring Hill CRA started at a disadvantage, but no one knew it at the time. It was created in 2005, near the peak of the housing bubble. At first, that was good.
“In the early years, the Spring Hill CRA had a bright start,” Apgar said.
The construction of Clara Place apartments provided an unexpected boost in property-tax income. Then-state Rep. Joyce Cusack secured a much-needed federal grant for water and sewer improvements.
Then, three short years after the CRA was created, the housing bubble burst. Funding for improvements in Spring Hill had a precipitous drop — from a high of $347,482 in revenue at the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year, to zero by 2010.
Stuck with a high base tax year, for the next six years the Spring Hill CRA had no tax-increment revenue.
In mid-June 2012, the CFCDC was investigated by the IRS, and withdrew from its almost 10-year relationship with the area, except for the single-family homes the group still rents out.
Reserve funds kept the resource center, now run by Shilretha Dixon, running, along with a modest grant program for home-facade improvement, but most major plans were scrapped.
For residents, this equaled just another broken promise.
The “weeding” portion of Weed and Seed had effectively targeted the minority population, and now the “seeding” portion would never fully materialize.
Twenty-two years after Weed and Seed, 14 years after the creation of the CRA, and after decades of hoping for revitalization, Spring Hill residents have an incomplete sewer infrastructure, a streetscape at one intersection, a resource center, and one modest home-facade program.
Now, with the loss of Woodland Towers, a massive hole is blown in this year’s CRA budget.
“It won’t affect construction of the resource center, but we’ll have to put our heads together with the county on how we’re going to fund operations,” Apgar said. “We’ve spent too much time and effort collectively getting to the point of construction not to operate the center.”
Like many plans for Spring Hill’s future, exactly how that will happen is unclear.
Editor’s note: This story draws upon myriad sources including: news articles; phone and in-person interviews of residents, city officials and other relevant parties; city and county documentation; and Stetson University studies, among others.