Lakeland CRA Assembling Small Midtown Lots to Support a ‘Large-Scale Project’

Tennessee Avenue and Plum Street

The Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency is cobbling together small, mostly vacant lots in an effort to support investment interest in “a large-scale project” in the Parker Street neighborhood.

The agency’s advisory board last week agreed to pay $25,000 for two side-by-side undeveloped parcels collectively totaling one-quarter acre at 901 N. Tennessee Ave. and 210 Plum St.

At the same meeting, the advisory board also agreed to a $151,318.70 grant for improvements, expansion and enhanced signage at The Yard on Mass, a project developed in partnership with the CRA.

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated that the land purchase and Yard on Mass would need approval of the Lakeland City Commission, based on information provided by a CRA staff member.

The acquisitions on Tennessee and Plum, tentatively scheduled to close in April, follow the board’s November $250,000 purchase of 210 East Myrtle St., a 5,000-square-foot lot with a 96-year-old home, and December $35,000 purchase of 215 East Parker St., a vacant 6,300 square-foot lot.

Parker Street redevelopment district: The properties with a purple overlay are owned by the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency, and the two properties with a gold overlay were approved for purchase by the CRA Advisory Board.

In recommending the board approve purchasing the two lots, staff analysts said the agency “continues to assemble properties in order to move forward with a large-scale project on properties south of Parker Street between N. Tennessee and N. Kentucky to the Intown Bypass.” (For the staff recommendation, see the section of the meeting agenda beginning on page 20.)

The two lots are a full block north of the area described by the staff for a large-scale project and are next to another CRA parcel used for parking for Mass Market and ART/ifact Studio personnel. They are across Plum and Tennessee from CRA-owned lots and in the block behind the Polk County Tax Collector’s Office.

The two lots are owned by Vets Surplus Inc., and are about a block northeast of its Vets Army Navy Surplus store at 819 N. Florida Ave.

According to CRA Project Manager Iyanna Jones, the agency offered $20,000 for the lots in 2018 but the owners refused any offer below $45,000.

At the time, former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn was a co-owner of Vets Surplus, along with Becky and Patrick Gridley.

That same year, Dunn fatally shot shoplifter Christobal Lopez. After failing to get dismissal under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, jury selection for his second-degree murder trial begins next Monday. Dunn is no longer listed as an officer with Vets Surplus, according to the company’s most recent filings with the state.

CRA Manager Alis Drumgo noted the owners — the Gridleys — not only shaved $20,000 off the asking price but agreed to pay closing costs. “Iyanna really struck gold on this one,” he said.

Private development in Lakeland’s 4,463-acre Midtown Community Redevelopment Area has lagged compared to other areas of the city. 

Over the last decade, the agency has financed renovations of the Polk Tax Collector’s Office, Nujak’s office and Parker Street Ministries campus; acquired, redeveloped and opened Mass Market in 2017; and redeveloped 2,356-square-foot Crystal’s World of Dance at 801 N. Massachusetts Ave. 

When The Well, a $1.3 million, 4,700 square-foot collaborative workspace opened in January at 114 E. Parker St., where the former Lighthouse Ministries once stood, Drumgo told The Ledger that it is one of many projects the agency has “on tap and we are hoping to move that neighborhood forward.”

Weaving together contiguous properties that can be packaged for cohesive development in the Parker Street area could galvanize “the whole ecosystem of the area,” said Brandon Eady, chair of the CRA advisory board.

The two vacant lots the CRA intends to buy are side-by-side at the northeast corner of the intersection of Tennessee Avenue and Plum Street.

Packaging together such small parcels and other efforts to incentivize investment in the Parker Street neighborhood is “a piece of the puzzle,” board member Harry Bryant agreed.

The board last week also agreed to grant one of the agency’s high-profile tenants in the neighborhood a $151,318.70 grant for improvements, expansion and enhanced signage.

The board unanimously approved Yard On Mass’s request for the subsidy under its 2018 lease-holder agreement, a 50/50 partnership with the agency in which it earmarked $400,000 to convert a former auto sales lot into a bar with live music and event space framed by food trucks at 802 N. Massachusetts Ave.

Jenn Batts of Project Redfin LLC, which owns Yard On Mass with partners Joel Batts and Craig Morby, said they opted to only accept $250,000 in December 2018 and raised more than $900,000 in private investment to get the business open by November 2019.

Going with a smaller upfront grant was “just to prove in good faith that we are here for the long haul,” she said.

In their request, the Batts and Morby acknowledge “it has been challenging to retain customers and take the leap with its sales.” 

Despite adding picnic benches under umbrellas opening the business late afternoon to target customers, “sales have remained stagnant,” they said.

Yard on Mass generated $30,681.59 in sales in February 2020, $23,945.96 in February 2021 and $17,780.35 last month, they report, an $8,000 decline from January.

The $150,000 will be spent on installing nearly 4,000 square feet of artificial turf in the main yard ($31,075.70); six shade sails ($18,000); a side-yard oak deck ($44,800); cabana and installation ($52,793) and additional wall signage ($4,650.00) for better visibility.

The Yard on Mass on Nov. 21, 2019, the day of its ribbon-cutting ceremony. Improvements funded by the grant approved by the CRA advisory board include replacing the grass in the main yard with artificial turf and installing overhead shade sails.

“These adjustments are some items that were initially discussed with the tenants. We didn’t finance them upfront,” Drumgo said, noting it is “understandable that they have circled back” to request an additional $150,000 rather than seek it from private investors.

Because Redfin participated in the construction of the building, the request is “unique” and should be approved, he said.

Awarding the grant “will benefit their business but we reap the financial rewards because those improvements stay with the building” which the city owns, Drumgo said.

Batts said the sideyard oak deck will span an area that becomes “a mud pit” in summer rains and will expand Yard On Mass’s event space capacities.

“We can do better, This has been the most perplexing thing for us,” she said. “We’re not having a problem retaining customers. We are having a problem growing customers. The improvements will help us do that.”

Eady said board members “run profitable businesses,” making it “hard to suddenly shift to a different mindset” before noting, “As a CRA, we are developing areas that are not profitable right now.”

In getting businesses off the ground in a struggling area, “These are the kind of struggles we come up against, the kind of problems that we face,” he said. “It is our role to be risk-tolerant. This is not just about (Yard On Mass), it’s about property we are acquiring around it. This is about those dollars that we have spent and continue to spend.”

Batts said she understands the city’s investment in her business is pivotal for the area.

“We are expected to anchor CRA growth. There are a lot of CRA properties around us,” she said. “We’re looking forward to Midtown taking off.”