Monday, January 17, 2011

2011 Retreat

This past week was dominated by meetings – the most notable being our council and staff retreat.

This year’s retreat was again held at the Embassy Suites Hotel on Harrison Avenue. Day one began with a session on remarkability. Each council member was tasked with defining what remarkable means to them, and to identify examples of what we consider remarkable on note cards. The cards were then placed on the wall and categorized. I am pleased to report that no one picked “beige”.

There was a wide-range of opinions on what remarkable means to each council member. Some of the items listed by council members, like the craftsmanship of the Library of Congress for example, were very detail oriented, while others, like a healthy economy or sense of community were more broad. The goal of this exercise was to identify the characteristics of a remarkable municipal environment, identify actions to achieve that environment, and then prioritize those actions.

After a healthy discussion about what is both remarkable and unremarkable in Cary, the council identified a number of action items for the following year. These include but are not limited to the following:

· Evaluate ways to incorporate features and amenities for our growing senior population into existing parks.
· Access the needs of our aging community to provide future services.
· Encourage and create gathering places and spaces for public events.
· Increase the use of technology to improve customer service interface.
· Expand Cary’s
SPRUCE program.
· Encourage a vibrant and dynamic downtown.
· Identify needs and improve roads to meet desired standard.

The afternoon session focused on the transportation system improvement process and funding. This included a presentation and review of Cary’s current APF/TDF/CTP structure, a look at what other municipalities are doing, and North Carolina’s legal framework.

The goal of this session was to determine a future direction for transportation requirements and improvements regarding new developments. The council has expressed the following concerns with our existing ordinances:

· Gaps - Developers are required to widen the roadway in front of their property. This often results in roads going from narrow to wide, then back to narrow.
· Fairness – oftentimes the last one in bears the burden of fixing everyone’s problem. While previous development surely impacted area traffic, if it did not degrade the level of service beyond a level of “D”, it is not required to mitigate their impact. Yet the last guy in whose project takes the intersection’s level of service below a “D” is now required to mitigate their traffic. Every project contributed to the area traffic but not every project was required to address it. That’s not right.
· Small Business Impact – Small businesses looking to open up shop in existing buildings may also find themselves responsible for traffic mitigation if their use is more intense than the previous. Often times the costs of traffic mitigation are a deal killer and the business locates in another city.

I believe we did a good job of articulating our goals to staff and they have an idea of what we are looking to accomplish with any ordinance amendments.

Day two focused primarily on our downtown area and on low to no cost initiatives – what do we want to do versus what CAN we do now given the economy? Discussion focus primarily on potential incentives (fee waivers, tax abatements, public/private partnerships etc..) to incent new development, as well as increased opportunities for events and festivals downtown.

I was VERY pleased to see council now open to fee reductions downtown as this is something I have been pushing for since I joined the council. The cost of developing downtown is far greater than that of developing a greenfield site for a number of reasons, most notably land assemblage, escalated property values, demolition, etc.. You aren’t just buying land. You also have to purchase the building sitting on it…before you tear it down. Parking is also a concern.

Council directed staff to communicate with potential downtown prospects that we will consider incentives for worthy projects. However, before others would commit to fee waivers/reductions downtown, they requested that staff mock up potential downtown projects and associated costs and fees so they can better understand how much of an incentive reduced/eliminated fees would provide.

I understand the concern that reduced fees mean reduced revenue. I get it. But right now we are seeing NO redevelopment downtown. 100% of nothing is nothing. A fee waiver or reduction just might be enough help to get a project going, and create a few jobs in the process – not to mention increased sales tax and property tax revenue – and bring something desirable downtown.

The final session was to develop an updated list of initiatives to provide staff with a foundation to prepare specific work plans and adjust resource requests accordingly. We also discussed how best to report these initiatives and their progress to the public and in the town’s budget document.

The most frustrating part of the retreat was one council member’s push for a “mobility fee” and a “transit tax”. Thankfully the rest of council did not agree.

Increasing fees and taxes are the LAST thing our economy needs.

I found this year’s retreat better than previous years as there was more discussion and action, and less presentation. I look forward to the months ahead as we turn words into action, and work to make Cary even more remarkable than it is today.