Collier County Commissioner Burt Saunders is zoning in on Golden Gate with hopes of spurring more commercial development. 

Saunders has proposed creating an economic development zone — or Innovation Zone — in the 4-square-mile area to:

  • Develop or improve local infrastructure, including street lighting.
  • Fund capital projects for industrial or manufacturing plants.
  • Lease or convey property.
  • Provide grants to existing businesses or to attract new ones to the community. 

The idea was discussed at the last County Commission meeting, generating unanimous support from other commissioners.

“There are a lot of opportunities I think that will come from this,” Saunders said at the commission meeting.

He said one of the reasons he ran for office was to address the serious needs in Golden Gate.

“There were a lot of infrastructure needs, a lot of housing that is in need of repair, a lot of businesses that are perhaps in need of some freshening up a little bit,” Saunders said.

The commissioner said he has taken a three-pronged approach to deal with the biggest needs in Golden Gate. The first step was the county’s takeover of the area’s utility system. The Innovation Zone would be the next step, and the final step would be to create a zoning overlay for some of Golden Gate’s commercial areas that also would be meant to encourage economic development and redevelopment.

Commissioner Donna Fiala praised Saunders for his ideas, designed to improve the business climate.

“I think your ideas are brilliant,” she said. “I think it has been needed for many, many years.”

The County Commission adopted Innovation Zones to promote economic development and diversify the local economy in 2010, but the county has been slow to implement them. Two other zones exist, in Ave Maria and East Naples.

Saunders said such a zone would make sense in Golden Gate because there is a compelling need for redevelopment.

The idea behind the zones is to create higher-paying jobs outside the county’s three primary industries: agriculture, hospitality and construction/real estate. Many of the jobs in those industries tend to be lower-paying.

The overall concept of the Innovation Zone program is similar to Community Redevelopment Areas, which are used to turn around blighted communities. Revenue from increased property values in the zone’s geographic boundaries are used to help pay for projects in the zone.

“It’s a value capture economic development opportunity for Golden Gate city,” Saunders said.

Here’s how the zones work: The County Commission sets the base tax year and geographical area, and then any tax increase collected in the area can be captured and deposited in a trust fund developers can tap. Up to $1 million can be put into the fund for any zone in any year.

“This is not a tax increase,” Saunders said. “It’s the tax increment from this point forward that will fund this in that area.”

To qualify for the incentives, developers must get their projects approved before building them. The money can help cover county permit and impact fees and other development and construction-related costs.

A seven-member advisory board would be created to help the county make decisions about projects and policies to help attract and grow businesses in Golden Gate. 

Jace Kentner, the county’s economic development director, said he doesn’t expect any opposition to the proposed Innovation Zone in Golden Gate.

“I can’t think of an objection someone would have to it,” he said. “Everyone technically wins.” 

While money is available for projects in the Ave Maria and East Naples Innovation Zones, no one has tapped the dollars yet, Kentner said. His office, he said, hopes to change that by improving marketing and showing how the dollars can be coupled with other incentives to create a larger, more attractive benefit for developers.

“When we market these and package them with other incentive products then I believe that $1 million is going to disappear very quickly, especially in an urban area like Golden Gate,” Kentner said.

Once a developer or business takes advantage of the incentives, others will see how it can help them, he said. 

“Once one fish gets something, then it will be a frenzy,” Kentner said. “That’s the way I’ve seen it before.”

If the zone is approved in Golden Gate funding would become available in fiscal 2020.

While Saunders enthusiastically pitched the idea of creating the Innovation Zone in Golden Gate, minutes later he questioned whether the county should even be involved in economic development during the same meeting.

The commissioner said he wasn’t sure whether the county benefits enough from the money it spends on its economic development efforts, including the dollars going into two business accelerators for startups in Naples and Immokalee. However, a full discussion on those expenditures was left for another day — and the board renewed contracts with three of its partners after brief presentations on what they do to help attract and keep businesses in the county.

Saunders could not be reached to comment about his concerns.

The county’s economic development department is in the midst of reworking its business plan, Kentner said.

A bigger discussion on economic development programs is likely to come in December, he said.

“County staff and its economic development partners will be prepared to respond to questions on the structure and effectiveness of the program and its return on investment to the community,” Kentner said.

Meanwhile, county commissioners are expected to consider the proposed zoning overlay for some of Golden Gate’s commercial property in January, which will require changes to the county’s growth management plan. It would give property owners in those areas more flexibility to have multi-use and multi-story businesses, encouraging new development and redevelopment, Saunders said. 

The overlay, he said, would “go hand in hand” with the economic development zone to improve conditions in Golden Gate. 

Efforts to promote business growth in the area come at an ideal time, said Russell Tuff, a board member of the Golden Gate Civic Association. 

Golden Gate, he said, has seen big changes since the Great Recession and the housing crash, attracting a more diverse group of residents that includes more younger families and retirees — who are buying instead of renting.

“There are new people moving in,” Tuff said. “They have needs and wants. Things they need to do and get. The timing couldn’t be better.” 

The community is changing for the better and the efforts to bring more commercial development will only “help that even more,” he said. 

“We’ve got these big empty buildings that happened with the crash,” Tuff said. “I think we can utilize them and put good use to them.”

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