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Revitalizing CR

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County commissioner and city at odds over plan for downtown redevelopment

By Abdon Sidibe

The author of a Crystal River revitalization plan intended to forge better ties between county and city leaders, feels misunderstood and befuddled by some of the negative reaction to his offer to help enhance a community he loves.

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County Commissioner Dennis Damato said his “Partnership for a New Beginning” plan for the city is the only “comprehensive” document out there meant to help transform what he calls a blighted community into an inviting locale for business and residents.

“I should be praised for my initiative. I should not be pummeled for wanting to take the lead to improve Crystal River and create a situation where the city and county leaders are working together in partnership for the best interest of the people of the county,” Damato said.

“Don’t shoot the messenger. Someone has to take the lead and do what is right. I am willing to do that. I know I can be a little different, a little aggressive in the way I do things, but that is just me. I like to see things get done and all I am trying to do is help.”

Damato’s plan, which was unveiled last month, has drawn heavy criticism from city leaders who variously accuse him of “borrowing” concepts from their plan and for failure to consult them before springing it on them.

“The way to do it would have been for him to come to us and say ‘I have these ideas and I think they could help the city,’ ” Mayor Jim Farley said.

 “But now we have a plan from him that has a lot of the things in our 2008 vision plan that we are already doing or are planning to do,” Farley added.

In a letter to the Chronicle earlier this month, City Manager Andy Houston noted projects undertaken by the city as a result of the 2008 plan included the South Citrus streetscape, the development of a master plan for Hunters Spring Park, the acquisition of additional public parking to support the South Citrus/Riverwalk area, the installation of wayfaring signage in the downtown area, the continued improvement of King’s Bay Park, the implementation of “mixed-use” land use within the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) District and along the U.S. 19 business corridor, the ongoing exploration of the feasibility of a marina in the downtown area, and improved “walkability” within the downtown area through the installation of additional sidewalks.

Damato is a member of the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and his district includes Crystal River.

His plan involves development in three districts: downtown/historical, town center and resort.

Damato said he created the plan with the aid of County Administrator Brad Thorpe and county staff. He spent about $1,200 of his own money to have a landscape architect draw renderings of his concepts and turned it into a booklet.

Damato, who owns businesses in the city, said he developed the plan because the city did not have one.

While Damato admits to studying the city’s vision statement, he doesn’t think that document is a plan.

“It is a vision. What I produced was a comprehensive plan with real conceptual drawings of what can be done to make the city an attractive place for businesses. My plan has a vision and master plan together and involves all sectors of the city, including a town center along U.S. 19,” Damato said. He would like to see the town center create multi-level spaces  for both residential living and businesses. He proposes an elevated boardwalk for Cutler Spur Boulevard from the proposed town center to downtown.

“I also identified ways to pay for these projects. I came up with something that has  an end to it,” he said.

By Damato’s estimation, nearly $20 million in water-related projects are either under way or in the works in the city and $2.2 million in CRA funds will be available.

“While I think the city’s proposed Riverwalk project (estimated to cost $1 million) should be built, the rest of that money plus impact fee money ($350,000) can be used to purchase and build a park at the corner of Citrus Avenue and U.S. 19,” he said.

The park Damato proposes will include an “event center” which could be used for musical performances.

Houston said while it is true about the water projects and the CRA funds, all those moneys are project specific and can’t be used otherwise.

“The remainder of the CRA money is earmarked for other projects, yes, we could have a discussion about that, but other than that he is not talking about any new money. The only new money I am aware of is the $350,000 in impact fees,” Houston said.

Farley dismissed the notion of having a performance venue at the proposed Citrus Avenue-U.S. 19 park, saying it will be too noisy and that the city is building a bandshell at King’s Bay Park for musical events.

He also doesn’t relish the notion of having big buildings near residential neighborhoods.

“We do not want to look like New Port Richey on U.S. 19,” Farley said.

Houston said the city went through a meticulous process of workshops, surveys and citizen input to generate its plan in 2008.

“He (Damato) never asked for our input when he came up with his plan,” Houston said.

Chronicle reporter A.B. Sidibe can be reached at 352-564-2925 or asidibe@chronicleonline.com. 

* The Crystal River City Council will discuss County Commissioner Dennis Damato’s revitalization plan for the city at its next meeting, 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14,  and schedule a workshop about the issue for Feb. 18.

* To view Damato’s plan in its entirety, go to www.bocc.citrus.fl.us/events/cr_redev_concept.pdf.

* Copies of the city’s vision plan are available at Crystal River City Hall.

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