We were hopeful that Hollywood's new development czar was a political outsider, but we weren't sure until now. Tanja Gerhartz has no friends or family in South Florida. She had never been to Hollywood until she came down from New Smyrna Beach for an interview. And she has never heard of Alan Koslow or Bernie Friedman or any of the other slick characters who have gotten rich helping developers score huge incentives at the expense of city taxpayers.
In a phone interview this afternoon, the newly hired director of the Community Redevelopment Agency admitted to being a bit "naive" about the Hollywood political scene -- a confession that should be music to the ears of Hollywood activists. "I don't think the challenges facing Hollywood are any different than in any downtown or any CRA," says Gerhartz. "The issues of trust and accountability, that's an issue everywhere too."
But a particularly pressing question in her new city.
No city in South Florida has spent more recklessly on development than Hollywood. It's been two years since Mara Giulianti was voted out of office, but her political ghost still haunts downtown. The towering condos that never sold, now festooned with big banners that beg for renters. Storefronts that were supposed to be restaurants and shops bustling with downtown dwellers, all dark windows and chipped paint. Visible reminders that city officials must be skeptical of sales pitches by developers and their high-priced attorneys.
During her two decades as a planner and development leader in Orlando, Gerhartz has dealt with this element. "I'm a big believer in community stewardship," she says. "My job is to help implement what the community wants and and use the financial resources wisely, so that there's a return on the investment." She promises that the public interest is her top priority but adds that "you can't really redevelop a CRA [district] without partners in the public sector and the private sector" -- that means developers.
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Gerhartz retired from her position as Orlando's economic development director in 2006, after she'd grown weary of making a long commute to the city from the house she and her husband owned in New Smyrna Beach. Since then, the couple had its own planning and development consulting firm. But in such a brutal real estate market, the public sector can look mighty inviting. In December, Gerhartz saw a posting for the CRA directorship in Hollywood and applied.
For City Manager Cameron Benson, one of the selling points may have been Gerhartz's experience in Orlando dealing with a district that attracts visitors who might have otherwise come downtown, the way the Seminole Hard Rock has sapped life from Hollywood.
"When Disney World and Universal Studios created their own versions of a downtown, it created new challenges for Orlando," says Gerhartz. "I learned that you have to reinvent yourself as trends and demographics change. You have to constantly analyze who your customer base is and how you fit in the regional economy."
Gerhartz starts her new job March 1.