Decatur Development Authority to focus on aid to local businesses, affordable housing in 2021
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By Cathi Harris contributor
Decatur, GA — The Decatur Downtown Development Authority (DDA) will make assistance to local retailers and continued support for affordable housing key priorities in the coming year, its board members said Friday.
At their annual planning retreat held via Zoom teleconference, the DDA board discussed progress made in the past year and what the authority should work on in the coming one.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic loomed large in their deliberations.
“I think we should ask ourselves at every meeting, what can the DDA be doing and what are we doing to sustain Decatur as the live-work-play destination that it has become,” board member Darren Comer said. “If we continue to see shuttered doors downtown, we won’t have any development projects to consider.”
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Other board members agreed but wondered what role—beyond the grant programs and low-interest loans the DDA is already supporting—the authority could play.
“The end goal is you want people to come spend money at Decatur businesses. But, with COVID, that is really hard. As a retailer, on one hand, I would love to have more people walking in the door. But, with cases soaring, do I really want people walking in my door?” Lisa Turner, board member and owner of Trinity Mercantile and Design, asked. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that I am very interested in hearing creative solutions.”
Obviously, some financial assistance is crucial, Board Chair Chris Sciarrone added, but the authority does not have a large assistance fund that it can continue to draw from.
“It will take some imagination and creativity to figure out what we can do,” he noted.
When it comes to supporting local businesses, the city’s economic development staff tend to focus on three main areas, Angela Threadgill, Decatur’s director of planning and economic development, said. Those are the recruitment of new business, retention of existing businesses, and encouraging entrepreneurship.
The board could choose to focus assistance in any one of those areas–or all three.
Downtown Program Manager Shirley Baylis told the board that a particular need is helping businesses that aren’t currently able to sell their products online.
“Several businesses cannot figure out how to get over the hump of doing online sales,” Baylis noted. “ With some businesses, COVID pushed them to do it, and they have done well, But some just cannot wrap their head around it.”
An intern with the city or with the DDA who has experience in e-commerce and who could go out and work with those businesses would be helpful, she said.
Other options discussed include working with commercial property owners to allow new businesses to use empty retail space for short-term “pop-up” locations as well as looking for options within the authority’s current budget and resources to support more grants.
And, although the city’s economic outlook may be different than this time last year, the DDA should still maintain its support for the development of affordable housing inside the city, several board members said.
“I definitely feel this should continue to be a priority,” board member Conor McNally said. “The pandemic may have changed our priorities and focus, but, if anything, it has exacerbated the need. This is more important than ever, and it is critical that we maintain a focus on it.”
McNally served as the DDA’s representative on the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, which last year developed a set of recommendations for improving the amount of affordable housing in the City of Decatur. A key feature of the task force’s report was the recommendation for a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance, which the City Commission adopted in July.
Now that the city has inclusionary zoning, the DDA’s main focus should be on ensuring that new developments are built that will provide the new housing that the ordinance seeks to encourage, McNally said.
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“We have the ordinance now, but the only way that helps us [add affordable housing] is if the developments get built,” he noted. “Ten percent of zero is zero.”
The added constraint of the affordable housing requirement makes residential development in Decatur more complex, McNally said. Developers will likely ask for incentives like tax abatements (tax breaks) in order to make their numbers work.
It will be up to the DDA to come up with a program that encourages development without adversely affecting the local tax base, he said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about tax abatements and how they are used and how they would be used here,” McNally added. “In other areas, development authorities use tax abatements to attract development. They grant them because, otherwise, no one would go build there. That is not an issue here. We know that people will build here. What we need to be able to determine is whether [an abatement] is absolutely necessary in order for a specific project to be built.”
The authority should also work together with members of the City Commission and the City Schools of Decatur on any tax break plan to ensure that the potential impact is understood.
Many people mistakenly believe that a tax abatement means an up-front loss of revenue for local governments and schools, McNally said.
“An undeveloped lot does not produce as much revenue as a developed one,” he explained, noting that an abatement of the tax on the developed property is just foregoing the additional revenue the city and schools would get for a certain period of time. They wouldn’t get any less than they had been getting before the property was improved.
But when authorities give abatements on developments that are going to be built anyway, they are giving up funding that might be needed to support the additional public resources the new development will use.
“I see that as our job [as the DDA],” McNally said. “To make sure the projects are good and to make sure we get that 10 percent.”
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