Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read September 2021 — The West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is in charge of improving and maintaining the appeal and quality of life and business in Downtown West Palm Beach. Executive Director Raphael Clemente spoke with Invest: about the DDA’s strategies to position Downtown for growth and addressed the trends impacting the area.
What strategies were put in place to ensure growth for the Downtown area during the pandemic?
We’ve been fortunate in West Palm Beach in terms of how we’ve been able to navigate the pandemic within our business community. The programs that we deployed during the early part of the pandemic were vital in supporting restaurants and retailers by giving them the opportunity to spill out into outdoor spaces. We saw this in cities across the world, but we were on the forefront of that wave. In fact we’ve been recognized nationally and internationally for what we came to call the Dining on the Spot program.We have high-quality public spaces that feel like pedestrian plazas, and these areas presented the perfect opportunity for COVID resilience. This was a critical component for our businesses to survive the pandemic. This also positioned our area well as a place that was visible to those who were looking for something to do in a safe way outside. People were choosing to go Downtown and enjoy themselves. Aside from that, the city of West Palm Beach, the DDA, and others contributed to a loan fund that helped businesses offset their losses. This was aimed at all types of businesses so that they could apply for a very low interest loan. Following that, the DDA even created a grant program that was designed to help offset rent costs for businesses. Like the outdoor dining program, this was a win-win situation. Not only did it keep businesses alive during the pandemic, it also helped property owners who were expecting revenue from tenants to at least get something. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
What plans are in place related to public transportation in the city to address expansion?
West Palm Beach, in my opinion, is the most well-positioned urban center in the region for transit and mobility. In our Downtown, we have two rail stations – Tri Rail and Brighline – and both drop or pick up passengers in immediate proximity to our main street, Clematis Street. It’s a walkable district so if you arrive here by rail on either service, there is an easy connection to government centers, offices, retail and restaurants, and events. The combination of the rail services and the walkability and character of our district are complementary to each other. We have a great offering of first and last mile services with our trolley system and the Circuit, which is an electric shuttle vehicle service. Having these options makes it easy for people to arrive Downtown without a vehicle and get around comfortably and efficiently. People choose non-automobile options as a matter of convenience both for cost and time.
How are you ensuring that Downtown remains friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists?
The density of a place, a growing residential sector, and mobility options connect together like puzzle pieces. The greater our density and the more populated the urban district, the more efficient and effective our transit options become. We are what many would call a 15 minute neighborhood – a place where you can easily access all of your day-to-day needs—like food, education and outdoor space—within a 15-minute walk from your home or office. The City of West Palm Beach, with the DDA as a partner, have really looked at how to design our public spaces to accommodate non-automobile travel comfortably and conveniently. While we still plan for automobiles – have good roads, and know parking is key to economic development and to office tenants – we strive to provide multiple options for people to get to and around the downtown area. We ensure that our public spaces and their edges are comfortable and as shaded as they can be.
What are the most pressing needs in terms of infrastructure and how do those improvements help the local business community?
As progressive as we are, in terms of transit, our downtown district isn’t as well connected to many areas of our region as it needs to be. If we are a center of jobs, we need those transit connections to the rest of the county to be significantly improved if we are to maximize the potential of the downtown area. . Investing in transit infrastructure, like bus rapid transit to connect the western areas of Palm Beach County to the downtown core would be a big advantage for us long term. The time to make those investments is now so that we can keep pace with growth.
The second pressing need is broadband connectivity, whether it’s 5G or fiber optic. Today, we conduct online meetings so making sure that telecommunications or internet connectivity is as fast and reliable as possible is a key piece to keeping professionals and corporations that have decided to come here.
Lastly, one of the main attractors of people to the South Florida region is the outdoors. As a region, county, city and urban center, we could do better in making our park and waterfront edges more attractive and accessible for more people to enjoy.
What is your outlook for the next two to three years for the city of West Palm Beach?
The outlook for the place as a destination for investment, residents, business development and tourism is fabulous. From my perspective as the Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority, we are doing all we can to keep pace and to make sure we are presenting our district in a positive way, ensuring that it’s clean, safe and attractive, and that it functions well. I’m thrilled to see what’s coming in the not too distant future!
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