The new Mr. Downtown

It took five months, 40 resumes, a nationwide search and much hand-wringing before Orlando city leaders found the ideal candidate to lead downtown in the direction they want it to go.

That candidate, ironically, has been camped at City Hall for the past eight years in a number of upper-management positions.

Frank Billingsley, who most recently served as the city's director of permitting services, is the man chosen to become executive director of the Downtown Development Board (DDB) and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), two city-run agencies responsible for the upkeep of downtown. Pending salary negotiations, Billingsley is expected to start May 1.

The new director, who turned 44 last week, was selected by a seven-member committee impressed by his strong marketing and retail skills and his reputation for turning around permitting services, the city department that conducts buildings inspections and issues construction and occupational permits.

"He really did a significant job," says Bob McClelland, secretary of the Downtown Development Board and a vice president of Beers Construction firm. "`The change` has been significant for people in my world. It's important that `permitting services` doesn't backslide. Orlando at one time used to be horrible."

As head of the DDB and CRA, Billingsley will oversee a $10 million budget and a staff of 13, focusing on such concerns as parking, transportation, special events and commerce. The two agencies aid developers by offering subsidies to build in the downtown area.

In his March 8 job interview, Billingsley proferred no magic cure for the lingering ills that plague the rebounding downtown. Those include empty office space, a lack of retail, and a downtrodden west side, where an abundance of homeless shelters has been criticized for hindering development. Vacant storefronts in particular haunt city leaders, who know that shoppers can travel just 10 minutes outside of downtown to find stores where parking is easy.

To reverse the trend, Billingsley said he'd like to bring in a retail coordinator to act as a liaison with the real-estate community. Billingsley would try to boost the residential population by exploring ways to use the vacant upper floors of smaller buildings. He also said he would market downtown to a regional audience in an attempt to entice residents who live in Heathrow, for example, to spend more leisure time in Orlando.

"I would celebrate every single success and inject some excitement into what is going on," Billingsley said. "Promote, promote, promote. Market, market, market."

Billingsley has never put together an "incentive package," the term city leaders use for subsidies handed out to developers who might want to build in the 1,620-acre CRA district. (The boundaries extend from Westmoreland Drive to Summerlin Avenue, the Lake Ivanhoe area to Gore Avenue.) That drawback led two members of the selection committee to favor Kenneth Bleakly, who most recently directed an Atlanta nonprofit agency that helped attract $800 million in development to the area around Olympic Park. But Bleakly's salary demand, $150,000, scared off some committee members. (The previous occupant of the job earned about $126,000.)

The choice of Billingsley likely will cause some City Hall observers to claim the deck was stacked in his favor, that the city went through the motions with an eye on the homegrown talent favored by the mayor. Not so, says Pat Christiansen, who headed the selection committee. He says Hood's only input was to call for a national search. "She gave no indication of which way she wanted to go," he says.

The city may have been lucky Billingsley sought the job. Three of the five finalists for the position failed to live up to the promise of their r?sum?s, insiders say. Art Jackson, executive director of the Athens, Ga., Downtown Development Authority, and Thomas Saunders, Gainesville's community-development director, seemed happy just to make the list of finalists; they didn't display the verve and insight the job requires. As for the fifth candidate, Carl Schwing, the selection committee discovered after they'd interviewed him that he'd resigned as city manager of St. Pete Beach last summer because of allegations he couldn't get along with his staff.

With Bleakly's salary demands in question, Billingsley moved to the front. He inherits an office held for 22 years by Tom Kohler, who retired in February to work for a real-estate data-collection firm. Kohler left the twin agencies with solid reputations but in a state of flux.

The CRA subsidizes development using a funding source called tax-increment financing. This type of financing allows city officials to borrow money against future property-tax increases created by projects subsidized with the borrowed money. For example, the CRA played a major role in putting together a $12 million incentive package that will help build the $53 million Hughes Supply headquarters in Parramore. The development, at Church and Division streets, is expected to launch a building boom that should create more tax dollars.

Orange County also contributes to the CRA's budget -- some $3.4 million last year -- but there are complaints that it does so without having much say where the money goes. County Commissioner Ted Edwards, among others, has been adamant that the CRA should not subsidize projects that the private sector can support. For example, the CRA has authorized millions of dollars to lure 1,400 luxury apartment units to the more prosperous east side of I-4, even as west-side redevelopment languishes.

So, Billingsley will certainly face his share of controversy. But DDB staff members believe he is just the man to deal with it; he was the agency's business-development manager from 1994 to 1997.

"He's had a life-long passion for downtowns," says Joyce Seller, interim CRA director. "It really is a part of him -- like Tom `Kohler`, who felt very strongly about downtowns. We see that in Frank as well."

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