Will voters have sufficient info for riverfront decision

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News Analysis

Vero voters need information if they are going to make an informed choice next November about the future of the city’s riverfront utility parcels, but debate continues over how much should be finalized before the referendum vote.

The city staff’s current schedule calls for finalizing a concept plan in January, then marketing that plan to developers who might be interested in leasing the land for 99 years to build a hotel, restaurants, shops and other amenities.

Issuing a formal Request for Proposals and choosing a developer is not set to happen until after the voters give the long-term lease of the property a thumbs up. Both the Big Blue power plant site and the sewer plant site are protected by the city charter and cannot be sold, or leased for anything other than recreational use, before the referendum.

So hopefully the city will get a good number of responses to its Request for Information and have several developers pre-qualified so at least the voters will know Vero will have a competitive proposal process to choose the very best developer with the most appropriate plan for Vero.

As City Manager Monte Falls put it, “We’ve got one bite at this apple and if we don’t get it right, we don’t get another.”

By Florida law, what voters will get will be a 75-word question, referring to the Master Concept Plan which they’ll need to look over themselves and decide if they like it or not.

Anyone who hasn’t been paying attention over the 25-month-long planning process, and who cares about what happens to Vero’s riverfront, should probably not wait until the night before they vote to study up. It’s already the proverbial “11th hour.”

There will be three more meetings in January on the concept plan before an RFI goes out to developers. The Three Corners Steering Committee and the Planning and Zoning Board will both have one final crack at the plan before it comes back to the City Council in mid-January.

The city is not permitted to spend taxpayer funds urging a ‘yes’ vote on the referendum, so don’t expect campaign-literature or ads promoting a particular vote on the riverfront project – unless some political action committee inserts itself, for or against. But the city can educate the public on what the Master Concept Plan entails.

But even the greatest Master Concept Plan is just that. Mayor Robbie Brackett said he hopes the city’s “entire wish list” makes the final cut, “but it will all depend upon what a developer feels they can support,” he added.

Councilman John Cotugno said he would prefer to choose a developer prior to the referendum, so that developer could then become a partner, taking on the task of promoting the development.

“If we’ve chosen a developer … the developer can reach out into the community and explain what he wants to do, and handle any objections and misinformation,” Cotugno said, adding that developers should be required to buy into the process. “The developer has to have skin in the game.”

Brackett emphasized that the project needs to keep moving forward because it’s already been delayed a year.

The city staff says there’s not enough time to go through the formal RFP process and choose a developer before the July deadline to finalize the referendum language and get it to Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan in time for next November’s ballot.

Councilman Bob McCabe pointed out that “the city council will have a lot more input in this if we do it (choose a developer) after the referendum,” he said.

So the reality is that the voters will not know which hotel brand would be built on the site or how large that hotel would be. If the well-qualified developers who emerge out of the winnowing process have different views on whether or not to keep Big Blue in place to incorporate the aging structure into the new resort property, the voters won’t know that detail either.

Budget hawks won’t know the financial details, and nature enthusiasts won’t know exactly how much open green space will end up in the final development plan.

City residents need to have realistic expectations about the level of detail they will have before they vote. Then citizens will be required to have a great deal of faith and trust in the five city council members who will be on the Vero Beach City Council after November 2022 as they choose a developer, and approve a final plan that best serves the needs and wants of Vero Beach.

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