Suddenly keen to an old approach, Palm Coast wants to remind property owners who own vacant lots or homes here that the city still exists. City government is planning to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to mail out postcards to those property owners as a first step to entice them to either fill those empty homes or build on empty lots.
There are some 18,000 empty lots in the city proper, and another 5,430 vacant housing units in the city (or 15.8 percent of the city’s 34,449 units, according to the latest Census Bureau survey).
“We can talk all we want about economic development,” City Manager Jim Landon said, “but it is going to cost money, and if you don’t spend any money, let’s quit talking about it, because if you’re going to go out and do marketing, if you’re going to go out and get serious about bringing these people in, you’re going to have to send some dollars.”
Property valuations have fallen by double digits for the last two years and are expected to fall again this year. Persistently high unemployment continues to be vicious-circle crutch on the local economy, making it unlikely that property owners will be interested in putting up homes. Those aren’t necessarily the biggest obstacles in the city’s way.
City policy is at cross-purposes with itself. On one hand, the city wants to target existing property owners, hoping they’ll return and build or fill existing homes despite the current environment. On the other, the city just approved three mega developments—Neoga Lakes, Old Brick Township and Bulow Creek—that, combined, would add 14,000 new homes to the city’s rolls. Between those homes and the 18,000 empty lots, Palm Coast would literally double its inventory of housing units—not an ideal prospect for property owners who’d like to see their property values go up again, or owners who’d like to invest in a new home that might appreciate over time. The three mega developments are slated to build out over the next 20 years, though there’s no sign of activity at any of them, and isn’t likely to be for a while yet.
Still, Landon thinks existing absentee owners would be interested in knowing the “new” Palm Coast—not the one with one of the nation’s highest foreclosure, vacancy and unemployment rates, but the one with new trails and new entertainment, though such amenities are not exclusive to Palm Coast. “Yeah they’ve been here, but many of them haven’t seen Palm Coast up to date,” Landon said. “We’ve got a movie theater now. All those reasons why you weren’t sure you wanted to move here.”
Don Tobin, a Palm Coast Realtor and publisher of GoToby.com, is all for economic development, but with a more thought-out strategy. “I think Jim Landon’s idea of the city taking the lead might be different than what our idea of the city taking the lead would be,” Tobin said, that idea being a more concerted approach with Realtors, builders and other businesses, eliciting their ideas on the nature of the problem and the best way to tackle it, and building a consensus on going about doing so. “Jim is not an expert in real estate, nor is he an expert in economic development. I’m not saying he’s dumb. He’s knowledgeable. But If I wanted to find out real estate information, I wouldn’t go to the city to find out other than finding out about permit information and such. If I wanted to find out about real estate I’d go to a real estate practitioner.”
The cost factor of a mailing should also be a concern to city officials, Tobin said. “I wouldn’t think the city should be building a city hall either, today. This is the time when people are hunkered down, and I don’t really see the city hunkering down,” Tobin said.
That’s the issue council member Mary DiStefano raised. “Should we as a city be using tax dollars, or could we perhaps partner and get the chamber, the Realtors, the builders?,” she said. “You’re not talking about a lot of money when you send the postcards out, but if you send packages out, you could be looking at a significant amount. When I first came here, back with the Indians, about 15 years ago, I worked with the chamber, and one of the volunteer jobs I did was to mail out packages for requests. We’d get two requests, either relocation or businesses, and we had a whole packet of information to mail out, and I know that the price could be significant. So I was wondering why we don’t partner or look at that as a partnership because I don’t know if we want to use tax dollars for this project.”
Landon said those conversations with builders, Realtors and the chamber have taken place, though the cost, in current plans, would still be borne by the city. He compared it to ITT’s approach, when that developer was building Palm Coast in the 1960s and 70s.
“But ITT was a business, so if they come down, you’d still need to have someone greet them and take them around, and I don’t think that’s a city employee’s job.” DiStefano said.
“But they’ve already have been here. ITT was inviting them to come for the first time,” council member Holsey Moorman said. Jon Netts, the mayor, described the venture as “seed money.” The follow-up would be taken care of by the city’s partners.
The discussion was limited to the post card idea—an idea with long roots, and some results, in Flagler County, though those results were themselves rooted in a period more conducive to development and speculation. The city council will reconsider the matter in two weeks.