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Is it time to try annexation again?

The failed attempt at annexing Spring Hill in 2002 completely restructured the city and county’s plan to develop the neglected area, and led to creation of the CRA, which is the first interlocal CRA in the state.

Because the communities of Spring Hill lie partly in incorporated DeLand, and partly in unincorporated Volusia County, both governments are responsible for the area, known by the catch-all term: Spring Hill.

The CRA model, while wildly successful in rebuilding Downtown DeLand, has so far failed to provide funding and financial stability for Spring Hill improvements. It might be time to look at annexation again, County Council Member Barb Girtman said at the Spring Hill CRA meeting April 23.

“I’m interested in when the annexation conversation will come back. Perhaps the time is right,” she said. “DeLand has absorbed a lot of development since then. Back then, the people footing the bill didn’t like it.”

The previous annexation attempt included properties outside of the Spring Hill area, to make the proposal fiscally sensible for the city, and was fought by some members of the wealthier, and overwhelmingly white, population included in the annexation area who lived outside of Spring Hill.

Ultimately, while residents in Spring Hill voted for annexation, the outside majority did not, and the measure failed.

“I feel real sore about it still,” retired DeLand Public Works Director Bo Davenport said.

“It’s 17 years later. We need to evolve. At least we need to start looking at it. They’re paying for it, anyway,” Girtman said. “We need to compromise to make it happen. And we can; we are compromising right now.”

Davenport added, “I want on my tombstone ‘I am a citizen of DeLand.'”

– Eli Witek

Despite forecasts of heavy rain, the skies were clear and the mood joyous at the April 26 groundbreaking for the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Resource Center.

A large crowd of Spring Hill community members, city and county politicians and staff, representatives from Stetson University, friends and family of Dr. Cusack, and Cusack herself, gathered around a pile of dirt and eight golden-bladed shovels on the site of the planned 3,250-plus-square-foot building at 481 W. Mathis St. in DeLand.

The land is adjacent to Spring Hill Park and a stone’s throw from the cramped existing Resource Center, a former temporary police substation that has been its home since 2005.

The groundbreaking was the penultimate event of a multi-day celebration of Dr. Joyce Marie Cusack, a well-known and longtime Volusia County politico and champion of Spring Hill.

Cusack was repeatedly referred to as a trailblazer. She was the first African American elected to the Florida House of Representatives from Volusia County, and the first African American elected to the position of Volusia County Council member at large. She served for eight years in each position, until she was term-limited out.

As a teen, Cusack organized sit-ins to protest segregation at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Downtown DeLand when she was still attending Euclid High School, the segregated school for minorities that was repurposed after Volusia County integrated in 1970. It was the first-ever sit-in in Volusia County, and it successfully convinced the soda shop to integrate.

Members of the Euclid High Class of 1960 attended Friday’s ceremony.

“This is the biggest crowd I think I’ve ever seen at a groundbreaking,” DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said.

But despite the smiles, the ceremony came during a somewhat awkward time for the city — a little more than a month earlier, final bids for constructing the new building came in, and the price tag far exceeds the funds.

Even with a total kitty of $680,000 from the city, county, and a Community Development Block Grant, the lowest bid of 10 requires an additional $462,293 in construction funds.

The higher-than-expected bids were the latest blow to the Spring Hill Community Redevelopment Area.

Created in 2004 during the housing bubble to generate revenue through property taxes to improve the under-served and historically African American communities in southwest DeLand — much like the Downtown DeLand CRA in the 1980s — the Spring Hill CRA was hit especially hard by the Great Recession and had only recently become financially stable.

Then, earlier this year, the highest-valued property in the CRA was ruled exempt from property taxes, and another hole was blasted in the budget, threatening the CRA’s ability to pay the operating costs of the new center.

Faced with a hefty price tag for the much-needed new facility and not nearly enough money, and with the planned groundbreaking only three days away, members of the CRA board — a mix of city and county elected representatives and two residents of Spring Hill — met April 23 to discuss options. City staff, community partners and Cusack also attended.

The city and county recently encountered a similar funding problem with The Bridge, a DeLand homeless shelter whose gap between construction costs and approved funding was nearly $1 million. The city and the county split the construction-cost increase, and private partners have pledged to help the city fund the operating costs.

But Mayor Apgar was quick to dispel the notion that the county might be similarly generous for the Resource Center.

“The county has made it clear, especially at the staff level, that there is no room or appetite to provide more funding,” he said in his opening statement.

That leaves the fate of the center squarely on the shoulders of the City of DeLand, whose leaders struggle to fund projects with a property-tax base that is 39-percent exempt.

“The final decision rests with the City of DeLand, and the commission will probably go with the recommendation of the CRA board,” Apgar said.

City staff worked up possible scenarios for the board to vote on — a reduction of the scope of the construction project, acceptance of the bid as-is, and rejection of the bid. All the options, with the exception of rejection, necessitate a long-term loan by the City of DeLand to the CRA. A repayment chart provided by staff assumed a 25-year loan.

Reducing or rejecting the bid was unpalatable to many on the board.

“I think we should go ahead. We did the research, and we found out what we need,” City Commissioner Jessica Davis, the first African American woman elected to the DeLand City Commission, said.

“We need to bite the bullet and pay for it. I feel that strongly,” City of Deland retiree and longtime Spring Hill resident Bo Davenport said. “I’m tired of Spring Hill always having something taken away. Anything in the Spring Hill area, we have a habit of downsizing.”

Reducing the scope of the project could trim the price tag between $59,000 and $194,000, theoretically narrowing the funding gap from almost half-a-million dollars to a little over a quarter million.

But, because of a previous no-interest loan of $165,432 for purchasing the land and hiring designers and engineers, the CRA would still be repaying the city between $16,800 and $25,200 a year if the scope were reduced. Without reducing the scope, the CRA would have an annual repayment bill of $28,900, according to estimates from the city.

At the moment, though, the CRA is just making ends meet.

Officials are banking on tax revenue from new developments, in particular the Pines project, an apartment complex at the intersection of New Hampshire and Clara avenues that staff estimates will provide an added $95,000 a year to the CRA by 2021.

That $95,000 could cover the loan payments, as well as operating costs for the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Resource Center. In the meantime, a $50,000 CRA reserve can fill the two-year gap in repayments.

“Assuming no recessions, assuming estimates are accurate, the CRA will be in the black,” Apgar said.

Staff and board members paused to agree that new developments were possible in large part because of funding for sewage and water infrastructure that Cusack secured during her time in the state House of Representatives in the early 2000s, after a failed attempt at annexation by the city torpedoed a $4.6 million development plan.

Without sewage connections, the CRA wouldn’t be able to attract new developments that provide the tax base it relies on.

“I am 100 percent for going forward as bid,” County Council Member Barb Girtman said. “I’d just like to see us with more meat on our bones.”

“Are there phone calls we can make? We need to find the money. I want to see what we said we’re gonna do. It can be done — we’re doing it right now with The Bridge,” City Commissioner Davis said.

If new furniture and kitchen supplies were donated, and local landscapers were willing to donate time and work, officials pondered, several tens of thousands of dollars could be knocked off the cost.

Either way, the Spring Hill CRA board agreed the plan had to continue as bid. The seven-member vote was unanimous.

“We’re going to make it happen. This is long overdue, and we’re going to see it through to the end. See the legacy realized,” Commissioner Davis said.

She repeated the sentiment at the groundbreaking ceremony three days later.

“I am honored to follow in the legacy of this awesome and audacious woman,” Commissioner Davis said. She addressed Cusack: “You are my mentor, and I love you and I’m thankful.”

It’s a fitting result for Cusack, whose motto is “Never give up, because dreams that you dare to dream do come true.”

Cusack was the last speaker.

“It’s because of you, I am. We’re going to see this thing through,” she said. “I don’t quit until it’s done.”

The construction of the new Resource Center is a partnership of the city and county government, she said, and a signal to visitors to the area.

“When they come to DeLand, they’re going to know this is a community that loves its people.”

“See you at the ribbon-cutting. Don’t worry — it’s gonna happen.”


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