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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 1, 2011 11 years ago

Go with Gusto

The group charged with the longtime-coming revival of downtown Bradenton doesn't have an easy task. Its new leader, however, isn't afraid to think big.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Officials. David Gustafson, executive director, Bradenton Downtown Development Authority
Industry. Development, government
Key. Gustafson has taken over the authority during a key phase of the city's revitalization effort.

David Gustafson was a human atlas long before GPS and Google Maps became ubiquitous. In fact, back in the 1970s, Gustafson's dad would drive the family around the back roads of Manatee County. The father would then hand young David a map and ask him to lead the way home.

The passion for maps stuck. Gustafson even majored in geography at USF. And he has stayed with it, with jobs in urban planning for both Manatee County and some of the largest engineering and development firms on the Gulf Coast and in Florida.

Gustafson's latest map dot, however, could be the toughest challenge of his career: to guide downtown Bradenton from an afterthought in vibrant downtowns on the Gulf Coast into a champion of urban core living and business activity. Gustafson, 47, was named executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority in early June.

The DDA's mission is to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to revitalize downtown Bradenton and some surrounding neighborhoods. An eight-person board of directors appointed by the Bradenton mayor and confirmed by the Bradenton City Council oversees the authority.

The DDA's most recent executive director, Mike Kennedy, left the authority in January to take a position with Suncoast Community Capital, a nonprofit economic development organization. Since then, the DDA has been the focus of several controversies over the use of subsides to woo businesses downtown. In one case, a west Bradenton restaurant owner turned down $250,000 in potential incentives to move downtown, partially due to public backlash. (See Business Review, March 1.)

Meanwhile, by most accounts, Gustafson is an inspired hire. He beat out more than 60 candidates for the position, including the coordinator of community redevelopment areas for St. Petersburg and a Pasco County senior planner.

“David immediately stood out with his strong ties to the private sector and his work with the county,” says DDA Board Chairman Will Robinson, a Bradenton attorney with Blalock Walters.

Gustafson's career includes stints with Bradenton-based ZNS Engineering and University Park-based Benderson Development. At Benderson, when he ran the firm's land planning division, Gustafson oversaw the approval of 5 million square feet of commercial and mixed-use space from Naples through Orlando. A big part of the job was working with the alphabet soup of state and federal regulatory agencies, especially ones with the environment.

“I negotiated with every environmental agency you could imagine,” Gustafson says. “It was a great time and an amazing learning experience.”

Gustafson also worked for Manatee County twice, most recently as a project manager, where his worked focused on the Fort Hamer rowing facility expansion project. Gustafson actually liked his work at Fort Hamer so much he nearly didn't leave. “I was very torn on whether I wanted this position or not,” says Gustafson. “I was very happy at the county.”

Gustafson and Robinson recently sat down with the Business Review to discuss the challenges in the downtown Bradenton revitalization effort. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

Q. Can incentives and subsidies revive downtown Bradenton? How?
Robinson: I think in the right circumstance, incentives can play a valuable role in developing a public-private partnership and bridging the economic gap. I do believe we need some sort of written program and plan in place so that anyone who comes to us for assistance has an understanding as to what our policies and procedures are. If it's not effective, if it's not going to produce results, it's not something we're going to do.

Gustafson: We need to determine what our situation is in the budget before we can go any further. I believe it can work. I'd like to see it work. But I have essentially eight bosses who will tell me what they believe is the appropriate deal and what those incentives are.

Q. What are the DDA's priorities for the next fiscal year, which begins in July?
Robinson: Just like with any budget, priorities may be one thing, but funding is a separate issue. (But) I believe, and I think it's the board's belief, that our No. 1 priority for this fiscal year is the construction and management of the improvements to Riverwalk. (That project is an overhaul of the Manatee River Rossi Waterfront Park between Nintth Street West and Sixth Street East. Construction on the $6 million project is expected to begin in July and take about a year.) I think that sets the stage for what we are going to do over the next several years. Everything needs to feed from the Riverwalk.

Gustafson: Private investors always like to see that the communities they are potentially investing in have success. Riverwalk is definitely part of that. We want to make sure the Riverwalk is complete by December 2012. That is the catalyst.

Q. What cities and downtowns would you like to see Bradenton emulate?
Gustafson: There are a lot of great examples out there. Tampa, Jacksonville, Washington, D.C. These are areas that I personally visit or research. There is a lot of success out there in other communities, and we will mirror those other communities. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel.

Q. What is the future of the Pink Palace project? (The Pink Palace, on 10th Street West, is officially called the Manatee Riverfront Hotel. It has sat undeveloped for several years. Syracuse, N.Y.-based Widewaters Group recently declined to move ahead on a plan to turn it into a Hampton Inn, when it felt the incentives package was too low.)
Gustafson: I think the Pink Palace is a key component to the revitalization of the downtown area. The possibility of bringing a hotel to the community continues to establish credibility, no different than the Riverwalk or a future grocery store. I met with the developers, Widewaters. It was a positive meeting. He said all the right things.

Q. How does the recession impact the DDA's goals?
Robinson: The shrinking of our TIF in this fiscal year has an impact. With less funds available, that means there are less things we can do. The next five years are going to be pretty lean. But that doesn't mean we can't be efficient and do great things. We just have to be very selective about what we can do.

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