Residents of low-income black neighborhood in Naples complained it had been neglected in funding for years
The Naples City Council wants to add at least $150,000 to next year’s budget for the city’s low-income minority community.
Council members came to agreement on that Wednesday after residents objected to an earlier budget proposal that didn’t include city redevelopment money for the River Park neighborhood for the ninth year in a row.
The council’s decision to fund a River Park project next year came after a lengthy back-and-forth with residents who said the council has ignored the neighborhood, where the need for public improvements has long been recognized, but where a scant portion of the city’s redevelopment money has been spent in the past 15 years.
“People in our neighborhood still feel like the city doesn’t have our best interest at heart,” said Curtis Williams, a longtime River Park resident. “If you represent Naples – I think River Park is a part of Naples.”
Vice-Mayor Linda Penniman said the council’s approval for a River Park improvement project to be determined by residents at an upcoming community meeting was “long overdue.”
“We are thriving, but your neighborhood isn’t,” Penniman said. “I would say in all fairness to every citizen that lives in this city that everybody needs to be treated fairly, and this neighborhood has not been treated fairly.”
Mayor Bill Barnett and a unanimous council endorsed the plan during Wednesday’s budget hearing.
“There was communication that was understood by both parties today,” Barnett said.
Williams and Antonio Dumornay, members of the newly formed River Park neighborhood association, voiced a longstanding concern that the council doesn’t consider River Park when budgeting money from its Community Redevelopment Agency. The agency is a special taxing district that uses property tax revenue from within the district for public projects.
The district was formed in 1994, in part out of recognition of need for the River Park area along Fifth Avenue North, east of Goodlette-Frank Road. The historically segregated community, where almost 90 percent of the city’s black residents live, has a median income of about $23,300, according to census estimates.
“This is Naples’ most important residential redevelopment area,” a task force wrote in a 1992 city-commissioned report that led to the creation of the redevelopment district.
“Every government program for assisting in home ownership in the area should be explored to make this transition into a racially mixed, viable community,” the task force wrote.
But River Park’s neighborhood of more than 60 single-family homes, along with the city-owned public park on the east end of the neighborhood, hasn’t received city funding for a redevelopment project in almost a decade.
From the more than $50 million in revenue the city has collected from the redevelopment district since 2000, the city has allocated some money for public facility improvements in the area surrounding the River Park neighborhood, including $550,000 in 2012 to help pay for a new pool.
Other projects, like landscaping and roadway improvements, have been funded by the city’s community development grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant money, which the city receives annually, is required for spending in the River Park area – the city’s only low-income census tract.
Roger Reinke, the director of the redevelopment district, said the committed annual grant revenues that are spent in the neighborhood helps explain why River Park doesn’t get more redevelopment funding from the city directly.
“We determined it was not worth it to duplicate that process,” Reinke said.
The Naples Daily News reported in December that nearly $275,000 of the city’s federal grants, or about 13 percent of its grant money since 2001, earmarked for the River Park neighborhood was diverted to other recipients in Collier County after project costs came back less than expected.
The city used money from its redevelopment district to pay consultants about $53,000 in 2006 to study the River Park neighborhood and write a report on its needs. Consultants said, among their findings, that facilities at the neighborhood park are “inadequate” and that the city needed to address the lack of affordable housing for River Park’s low-income residents.
“A lack of a continuum of quality and affordable housing is of crisis proportions – but not addressed as a crisis – it needs to be addressed as a crisis,” the 2006 report said.
Council members have said that building affordable housing in the city is difficult due to the area’s high land values and low building density.