By Thomas R. Collins
The website’s home page has an aerial shot of the coastline, with turquoise waters washing over the sand and sunbathers dotting the beach.
Delray Beach, says the site recently created by the city’s Chamber of Commerce and its Community Redevelopment Agency to attract businesses, sits “at the center of aneconomic region” but also “boasts a unique downtown where you can walk fromhome to work, to 50 great restaurants, a pristine beach, art galleries,museums, parks, historic districts and unique shops.”
Going by that, you’d think that getting CEOs and business owners to come to SouthFlorida would be, well, pretty easy.
As city leaders and economic development types will tell you, though, it’s not. Especially lately, amid a financial gloom where jobs are scarcer, competitionis stiffer and the money for fancy marketing just isn’t plentiful.
The larger cities along the coast are resorting to new tricks to draw businesses —such as that new website, businessdelray.org, in Delray; new streetscape projects in Boca Raton; new grants in Lantana; and key partnerships in Boynton Beach.
The stakes are even higher these days, since residential tax bases have shrunk andmore attention is being given to bringing in businesses to boost the commercialtax base.
“It’s much more competitive now,” Boynton Beach Chamber of Commerce President Glenn Jergensen said. “There’s a lot out there in other areas of the county that isattractive. You have to have a good product.”
In Boynton, there is a heavy reliance on the Community Redevelopment Agency’sincentive program to help businesses with things like signs, facades and rent, including along Federal Highway, where new condo projects like Las Ventanas and The Promenade include commercial space that needs occupants.
Jergensensaid that, recently, there has been a pointed effort by the Chamber, CRA and the city to collaborate and get on the same page so that they have a good pitch available when potential businesses come knocking.
“We have to make sure we have our story so that when we present ourselves topotential businesses, that they understand,” he said.
The battle for businesses today is a quest for small victories. Gone are the days of the IBMs that can bring tens of thousands of jobs to a city with one big“get” — due, in part, to technology and outsourcing to overseas locations.
“If they’re bringing in 10, 15, 20, 30 employees, that’s a big deal,” Jergensensaid.
How to use commercial space created some tension in Boynton last month, when the city voted to issue $8 million in bonds for a charter school in Quantum Corporate Park on Gateway Boulevard. Mayor Jose Rodriguez and Commissioner Steven Holzman voted against the idea because it takes potential tax revenue away from the city since the school doesn’t pay taxes.
“It’s hard, it’s tough in a down market like this,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard to give it away.”
Jergensen said he favored the move because it means jobs and services.
In Delray Beach, the new website will be joined by another one in January— visitdelray.us — that will have a broader scope, said Chamber President Michael Malone.
The Chamber has also been working more closely with “site locator tours,” or groups that act as a kind of real estate broker for businesses that are looking to relocate.
The hope is that once they see the city — its commercial appeal as well as its weather and beach appeal — Delray would become irresistible.
“To be able to touch and to sell it makes all the difference in the world,” he says.
There have been losses, but there have also been gains, he said. “We may lose a grocery store but we pick up a car dealer.”
Businesses are demanding when deciding where to move, and whether to move, he said.“Everybody’s looking for that golden apple out there all the time.”In Lantana, officials are hoping that the new administration under Gov. Rick Scott will declare the state land around A.G. Holley Hospital to be surplus and allow the town to develop it as a commercial center, which has been planned since 2006, Town Manager Michael Bornstein said.
The town is already in the process of rezoning the property to mixed use.
“We want to create shovel-ready properties,” he said.
The town also is now part of a federal program that might help existing businesses during these tough times. It is participating in the federal PACE (PropertyAssessed Clean Energy) grant program, in which businesses can get low-interest loans for improvements that are conservation-minded. The loans are repaid through property tax bill assessments, linking them to the property rather than the business, meaning banks are taking on less risk, allowing them to issue loans at lower rates.
Bornstein hopes the program helps the companies that get the loans, as well as the businesses that are doing the energy-efficient improvements for those companies.
“We’re hoping that the bottom line is that it can save some businesses some money whouse a lot of electricity or have old facilities,” he said.
The town, which applied along with the Lake Worth Chamber of Commerce, won $341,000 to set up the program and to run it, Development Services Director Dave Thatcher said.
In Boca Raton, the game changed several years ago. A decade ago, if a business planned to move to South Florida but didn’t want to go to Miami, it was a pretty safe bet that it would come to Boca, Mayor Susan Whelchel said.
“I would say that we had very little competition because Boca … was much more advanced than any of our coastal cities.”
Since then, cities to the south and north — including Delray and Boynton— have “revved up,” she said. “Their downtowns have been highly successful in being redeveloped, so we kind of took a step or two backwards.”
A newly declared dedication to improving its downtown beyond the borders of Mizner Park will act as an economic engine, she said. A streetscaping project just south of Mizner Park — an area long touted as crucial to the city’s downtown — will get going full-speed in the spring, she said.
The city recently has also “done much more work with the BDB (Business Development Board of Palm Beach County),” she said.
As mayor, she has been putting in more face time with potential corporate residents, she said.
In the end, though, there will only be so much the cities can do. In the fall, Boca Raton dropped plans to set aside money to be used exclusively for corporate attraction efforts because it would have contributed to too big of a tax jump. Instead, the city is pulling money from its reserves on a case-by-case basis, which it has traditionally done.“We can do the best we can to say, ‘Hey, come look at our city, this is where we want you to be,’ ” Whelchel said. “But we can’t control the economy here.”
What local cities are doing to attract businesses:
Boynton Beach — City, Chamber of Commerce and Community Redevelopment Agency meeting to craft its message to potential businesses; Chamber strengthening its relationship with county Business Development Board.
Delray Beach — Starting two new Web sites — businessdelray.org and visitdelray.us — and working more with site location groups that connect cities with businesses looking to relocate.
Boca Raton — Downtown streetscaping project meant to help existing businesses and bring in new ones; works closely with Business Development Board.
Lantana — Rezoning land near A.G. Holley Hospital to pave the way for employment center; approved for grant to help businesses with improvements that are geared toward energy efficiency.