By PETER GUINTA
Publication Date: 03/08/08
Redevelopment of Vilano Beach's Town Center has stopped because the state's collapsed real estate market has essentially frozen commercial lending and dropped property values.
St. Johns County will now be forced to make the monthly payments on a $12.2 million sales tax bond it had issued to cover the cost of Vilano Beach infrastructure. Those projects included drainage improvements, new roads and underground utility lines.
Elaine Dilbeck, past president of the North Shore Improvement Association, said the purpose of the infrastructure improvements were to bring people to Vilano Beach as a destination.
"(But) I noted that there were no workers out there (Thursday or Friday)," she said. "We're going to get the Publix, we just don't know when."
Dilbeck said the redevelopment movement in Vilano Beach began in 1995, when the rickety wooden bridge from the mainland was torn down and the arching, concrete-and-steel Francis and Mary Usina Bridge completed.
"We decided we were going to do something, because we had lost traffic and were going to lose businesses," she said. "We wanted to have that small town flavor but still draw people. You can see the sun rise and set on the same block. That's why we have two gazebos. Vilano has a laid back, romantic Florida style."
One of the original selling points of the downtown redevelopment was the promise of a Publix. Residents had to drive to St. Augustine or Ponte Vedra to do grocery shopping.
Vivian Browning, also a past president of the Improvement Association and still a board member, said she expected it to take about 18 months to build a Publix, 36 condominiums and an underground parking garage. Also planned is 30,000 square feet of boutique stores, which would feature an ice cream parlor or places selling beach wear, for example.
"We're a mirror of the rest of the state and nation," Browning said. "It's just going to take a little longer to pull things together with this economy. We've gotten the infrastructure done. The rest can evolve in parts." County Commission Chairman Tom Manuel said Friday that the county is examining all the Community Redevelopment Agencies to see what the board's total liability is concerning revenue bonds. Other CRAs, such as the one in West Augustine, have also issued bonds backed by sales taxes.
Those figures won't be out for a week or so, Manuel said.
"I need (these CRAs) to work. The county and the public need them to work," he said.
County figures indicate that in January, Vilano's CRA returned $357,260 in 2007 tax dollars toward the bond payments. This was lower than the estimated $400,000 that was returned in January 2007, the figures show.
Browning said the market is the worst she's ever seen in 30 years of selling real estate.
"Some of the will to buy (property) is gone," she said. "We're hoping our revitalized downtown will bring buyers because of the changes. There are more than a dozen business on Vilano Road now. We're having the business owners clean up, fix up and remove old signs. We want to be spiffed out for our summer season. We'll be in good shape and have a viable commercial area."
Click here to return to story:
© The St. Augustine Record