By Donald Sizemore
College Town currently serves as the epicenter of Florida State University’s social life in Tallahassee. Yet, this vibrant mixed-use commercial and residential area–skirting the southern border of FSU, three blocks from Florida A&M University, and just a quarter mile from FSU’s football stadium–did not exist in 2010. Instead, the area was a collection of largely abandoned warehouses and commercial buildings that served the city’s former economic role as a transshipment center for manufacturing and agricultural products. What explains this transformation?
The College Town story begins with the Community Redevelopment Agency of Tallahassee (CRA). The CRA targeted the area for redevelopment almost a decade prior in 2004 by including it in its redevelopment district. The area, designated as “blighted”—a determination that the area is in a state of urban decay or decline—by city officials, qualified for tax incentives to encourage private development revitalization. These incentives included $2.4 million in grant assistance and the establishment of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district to generate revenue for core infrastructure and business assistance in the district. Tax increment financing is a controversial tool used by local governments to fund current investments in infrastructure and other programming by leveraging future tax revenues generated from forecasted increases in property values (see here and here). This eventually led the Seminole Boosters, a nonprofit organization established to support FSU and its Athletic programs, to help revitalize the south campus area while also generate ongoing revenue for their programs.
The Seminole Boosters purchased several properties in what is now called College Town in 2010. The location of the property made it especially attractive to the Boosters given its close proximity to Doak Campbell Stadium and the rest of the Florida State campus. This was an opportunity for the Boosters to create a place for students and alumni alike to experience game day. This goal, shared by both the Boosters and the CRA, gave rise to Madison Social, the restaurant and bar on the ground floor of the mixed-use commercial building. Of course bars and restaurants existed in Tallahassee before College Town. However, they were far more dispersed and definitely further from Doak than College Town is today. Demand for a one-stop-shop game day location emerged, and all it took was someone to supply that demand.
The timing of College Town’s redevelopment is no accident. The culture surrounding FSU football existed for decades before College Town, and the area’s tax incentives were in place since 2004.
So why did College Town develop in 2012? The answer likely lies in the local public infrastructure. Before 2012, the infrastructure for this area was designed to support warehouses. The underground utilities, like water and sewer, could not service the multi-story mixed-use developments serving the student and young professional population that would become College Town. In early 2012, the city began upgrading the infrastructure that services the College Town parcels increasing their capacity to allow for larger future developments. New water, sewer, gas, and stormwater infrastructure were installed along the corridor in 2011. The ability to walk to the adjacent Gaines Street, a major Tallahassee thoroughfare, was also improved in 2012. The four lane road became two, reducing capacity, but street lights, on-street parking, and medians (with landscaping) were installed. Electrical lines were moved from the street to mid-block locations, where possible. College Town officially opened the year following the completion of these improvements.
So herein lies an answer, at least based on a preliminary analysis as part of a larger project by the DeVoe L. Moore Center. The CRA designated the area for redevelopment, giving private developers tax incentives to revitalize the area. The FSU Boosters wanted to complement the gameday culture and generate revenue, as well as take advantage of the tax incentives available for the property, but the infrastructure there could not support large commercial developments. Therefore, infrastructure improvements allowed the Seminole Boosters to take advantage of the CRA tax incentives to develop the urban hub that is now College Town.