Perception vs. Reality

Does Buddy’s Beleaguered Bowl Bid Break The Bank?

Orlando Tribune - Bowl Story 2007 1 - Gavin P SmithORANGE COUNTY – Last year, I attended a downtown mixer at City Hall, where Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer spoke of bold plans to renovate of the Citrus Bowl, create a new cultural and performing arts center, and build a new sports and concert arena.  As Buddy bloviated, it sounded magnificent.  I was glad I moved to Orlando to get in on the ground floor of this envisioned boom.

Fast forward a year later, and you’ll find a different Buddy Dyer.  Frustration may be understating Dyer’s situation just a bit.  He’s put a lot on the line, including his political reputation, to see this new development plan through.  But, there’s a perfect storm brewing that could make this plan much more difficult to sell and in turn, put a perception issue in place to cloud his re-election.

As previously reported, state lawmakers are cutting property taxes, which will in turn decrease revenues for the County and the City.  Hard choices are going to have to be made for some major cuts in county spending to accommodate this change.  Plus, voters are going to have a say in more cuts in a referendum on the ballot later this year.  Trying to pitch the idea of massive spending for downtown re-development at a time when public services may take a hit will be like trying to sell a shiny new car to someone that’s about to lose their house.

“We’re essentially dealing with two large issues at the same time,” said Carson Chandler, Press Secretary for the City of Orlando.  “The budget process is a large undertaking every year.  In a perfect world, we’d like for these two issues to happen separate of each other.”

Why the bad timing?  Dyer is waiting on county commissioners to approve the spending measures for the new project and has done so since December.  Most of the funding is in the form of tax revenues from tourism, which falls under county control.  However, according to officials, the city has already approved the development project. 

“The upcoming vote is on the Orange County inter-local agreement,” said Chandler.  “The City Council has already approved the measure.  We have high hopes and strong assurances that it will not be delayed further.” 

Dyer and others hope so.  However, according to other officials, this is far from a done deal.  To pass the measure and move forward, Dyer needs 5 out of 7 of the county commissioners to vote for the measure, and county officials still have many questions they want answered. 

Unfortunately, time is not on Dyer’s side.  He is feeling the squeeze from those who are warning that further delays of the venues could result in increased costs of materials and higher construction prices, although the Orlando Magic have promised to cover cost overruns, at least for the arena.  Once the county approves the spending, all parties involved will get together and set a schedule and timetable for construction.  However, no official date for groundbreaking can be set until this happens.

Orlando Tribune - Bowl Story 2007 2 Gavin P SmithThe development plan is not cheap.  Many numbers have been tossed around in the media, but the facts are as follows.  It equals roughly $1 billion, including a $380 million events center, a $375 million performing arts center, and a $175 million renovation of the Citrus Bowl.  Other media have inflated the numbers to reflect the total interest over the years to come up with a higher figure.  It’s just not factually accurate.  That would be the equivalent to a person buying a $200,000 house, factoring in interest, and telling everyone that they’re buying a $650,000 house.  The present price and dollar value is what it is, just at or around $1 billion.

Where does the money truly come from?

“Realistically, $570 million is proposed to come from tourism development taxes, or TDT,” said Fred Winterkamp, Manager of Fiscal and Business Services for Orange County.  “Portions also come from donors, the Orlando Magic, the Community Redevelopment Agency, and the $90 million sale of the current Centroplex to developers.”

That’s a lot of funding that will be approved simultaneously with upcoming budget cuts in other services, and may present a hard sell to the public.  Trying to hold things together on the county level, Mayor Richard Crotty of Orange County has already placed a hiring freeze on government departments, and has called for a minimum 10% slash in budgets across the board and a 5% workforce reduction.  Commissioners must also make tough choices.

“As we prepare for the Budget Work sessions, I am assessing what areas can afford to be decreased without jeopardizing the quality of governmental services, said District 6 Commissioner Tiffany Moore.  “It is apparent that we must evaluate efficient ways to provide services and research innovative methods to supplement the loss funding.”

Dyer gets no break at all in this mess. He personally has to pitch the development plan on July 26th, around the same time as new budgets are discussed and revealed by commissioners as a result of the property tax cuts.  And that’s bad news when you’re trying to keep perceptions positive during a re-election campaign.

“These issues place a huge cloud over the venues discussion,” said Commissioner Moore.   Dyer must deal with that big cloud at perhaps the most inopportune moment. It was hoped that he would have the development deal sealed going into the election as a boost.  However, Dyer may end up having voters upset that their vital daily services were cut while money was spent on new stadiums, a perception no politician wants.

“It’s important to stress that the two issues we’re working on right now, venues and budgets, are completely separate,” said Chandler. “It’s a simple case of public perception versus reality”.

But is Dyer’s development plan truly worthwhile to weather perception?  And does it absolutely have to be funded by tourism revenues going to the county?  Opponents say that the new arena could and should be funded by Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos.  The plan currently shows a modest Magic contribution of around $50 million for the $380 million arena. 

“It’s a figure worked out at a lot of different meetings and discussions,” said Chandler.  “The funding is comparable with and, in some cases, beats other NBA teams in cities this size.  Plus, the Magic have agreed to fund any cost overruns.  As anyone knows, that can be the killer to any project.”

Not necessarily true compared to other contributions in other cities.  It does not hold up to standard percentages more around 15-30%.  In some cities, absolutely no public funding is provided; it’s all in the hands of the team.  As well, there’s no public vote on the issue as in some cities.  One could only imagine how this vote would turn out given the current fiscal situation?

As for the crumbling Citrus Bowl, many would like to see it become something bigger than what it is.  But that’s simply not in the plans. 

“It’s not being built with a pro sports venue in mind,” said Winterkamp. “It’s seen as a marketable alternative venue or a college event level venue.”  So, those of you with dreams of an NFL team in Orlando should go back to sleep, for now.

Given the plan and the fiscal issues facing the county and city, Mayor Dyer has a hard row to hoe over the next couple of months.

“The Mayor recognizes that the State handed down much needed tax relief to the citizens,” said Chandler.  “He is happy to see it but understands we’ll have to do more with fewer resources and adapt to doing things a slightly different way.” 

So far, there’s no adaptation to Dyer’s development plan, the Magic contribution, or the pending vote.