EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.
As a newly elected city commissioner, Pat Gass wants to figuratively turn up the gas to ignite changes within Fernandina Beach.
She takes a refreshing and serious approach to her new role, soliciting information and ideas from many sources. She has sensed a prevailing perception that the city has not been accommodative or friendly to new or existing businesses, or to new development (or to any economic initiatives).
And Gass wants to do something about it. She is open-minded and curious to what people have to say. She takes her new job seriously.
So I emailed my ideas to the inquisitive Gass, derived from what I hear and what I see within the community. She was quite receptive to my observations, so I wanted to share them. These are not listed by importance, because all of them are important.
— The business environment in Nassau County has become significantly more competitive. So businesses in downtown Fernandina Beach face more competition than they ever have — with the development of Sadler Road as well as in Yulee. The recent opening of the popular Panera Bread restaurant in Yulee is another shot over the bow.
— As an example, New York City is advertising “tax free zones,” whereby businesses can locate and not pay taxes for 10 years. This concept is similar to enterprise zones that have been successfully used elsewhere. Most businesses look at various locations before they choose one. Certainly, financial incentives can prove to be the deciding factor.
— Impact fees are the opposite of financial incentives; they are a dis-incentive. Don’t forget that these are assessed within the city prior to other costs and fees that a new business endures. One new business faced $80,000 in fees and other preliminary costs — before even breaking ground. Not surprising, the business went elsewhere.
— When the city raises the property-tax rate, this directly impacts businesses. While homes are protected by the homestead exemption, businesses have less protection in terms of taxes. In addition, most stores and restaurants and shops occupy large buildings, which endure even higher taxes. And higher taxes correlate into higher rents, because landlords pass these on directly to their occupants.
— The permitting and approval processes should be streamlined for new businesses. This is not to allow a new business to open without conforming with the parameters of the historic district, for instance. However, in places like the South Eighth Street corridor, let’s loosen the restrictions to fill the ubiquitous vacancies.
— Several years ago, the Main Street revitalization program was being considered for Centre Street (and the side streets). Within this program, an economic development manager is imperative. This person works directly with existing businesses — and tries to attract new ones. The position could be paid for by a new sales tax or by reducing some employees in other areas of the city government. The Main Street program is through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and guides downtown districts through revitalization efforts.
— With all of intelligent people living here, let’s unite them and have them work alongside the new Main Street manager. They could also interact with the various boards here, such as the waterfront committee and the CRA. If nothing else, the hand-picked committee could research and provide recommendations for attracting businesses here, fixing the marina, and providing an economic boost to the entire city.
Ideas like these (and there are certainly others) can help rekindle the flame for the economic environment in Fernandina Beach. A flame that burns on gas?