North Carolina, USA

Venues: Public Interest or Special Interest?

County Commissioners give go ahead for funds

ORANGE COUNTY – All of life is a stage, and we are merely players upon it.  It would seem Shakespeare’s point was made again recently during the big spectacle known as the Interlocal Agreement vote.  This vote was the final hurdle for the development of the downtown venues, freeing up tourist tax revenues and pushing forward the planning.

Theatrics?  Absolutely.

If you’ve been watching the TV lately, you no doubt have seen what can only be equated to an intentional media and public relations blitz in favor of the downtown venues package.  Add in picketing people outside the meeting, signage everywhere, websites, groups, press reports and more hoopla leading up to the event, and one could definitely call it a big performance.

There was only one other alternative offered to counter the downtown venues plan, offered up by developers Mark Watson and Stan Thomas. Their proposal involved construction of a massive set of venues in the heart of the I-Drive tourist area next to the Convention Center.

Watson’s plan called for a new arena adjacent to the convention center, touting 21,600 seats and flanked by two 2,000-space parking decks, a retail park, and a hotel.  Site plans on public record have also reportedly shown designs to create a retractable-dome baseball stadium and a grand prix racetrack.  The cluster would be tentatively called the Orlando MegaPlex. The plan is similar to Victory Park in Dallas, Texas.  Plus, with all of the various roadways and infrastructure already in place, the plan would save about $100 million according to Watson.  As well, more jobs, tourism tax dollars and growth would be spurred as a result.

As Watson pitched the plan at the Interlocal meeting, it was like watching Rambo III.  Like Rambo, Watson appeared as one man with his big weapon, facing hundreds of opponents spread across the political horizon.  He was outnumbered from the start, which is unfortunate.  To hear Watson’s plan in full, one might come to the conclusion that all of the special interests involved may not have even analyzed the plan properly.

Watson makes a very compelling argument, the scope of which has not seen the full light of day in the media.  Instead, local media has been inundated by stories backed by supporters of the downtown venue plan.  It’s hard to find any dissenting stories on the downtown venues too.  Let’s do what others would not.  Let’s give Watson and his plan a detailed look before closing the issue.

“What we see is the consistency of an event center as part of the master plan for the convention center,” said Watson.  “There’s tremendous history in this, going all the way back to the ‘site fight’ in 1978.  There was a push in 1986 to build an arena downtown, resulting in the Amway Arena.  Quite frankly it hasn’t been a success.  We put 50 million into it and 11 years later it is declared obsolete, and 20 years later we’re going to tear it down.  So building another one in Parramore is going to do better because it has 900 more seats?  Think about it.”

The current downtown plan, while noble, has its flaws.  To deny this would be foolhardy, given the numbers and realities of this project.  For one thing, some think that the contribution of the Magic is too small.

“The Magic are trying to base their contributions around using the arena for only 40 nights per year and that’s not quite accurate,” said Watson.  “They’ll have administrative spaces, training spaces, a practice court, and more so they’ll use the facility more than 40 nights.  The electric bill on the Amway Arena is $1mil per year alone.”

Plus, the placement of the venues downtown in an already compact area doesn’t appear to afford much spare space for new businesses to spring to life.

My viewpoint is that the community really makes out on tourism tax dollars when they are put into the ground,” said Watson.  “Two things should happen.  One, we should see a significant increase in sales and bed tax revenues which is the return on investment.  Two, we should see a significant investment of private dollars around that, raising ad valorem taxes for government, fire, police, etc.  There’s nothing like that in the downtown arena plan.”

Finally, we all know what downtown traffic is like now.  Imagine the load that comes with it.

And what happens if the downtown venues plan hits a snag and the numbers suddenly don’t add up.   What if the Mayors have to announce that they’re surprisingly short on dollars to complete the venues development, and indicate that they will have to take some of our taxpayer budget dollars to cover the remainder?  With tax revenues falling thanks to state reductions in property taxes, and a referendum to further lower those by public vote later this year, what would have to be cut to make that happen? Nobody aired such a possibility at the interlocal meeting.  However, it will not matter by then because everyone will be re-elected, so it won’t affect any campaigns.   Again, all the world’s a stage.  Slick performance?  You better believe it.

Let’s take a look at the key players.  Mayor Dyer is pushing this for obvious political reasons.  Dyer is looking to bank on this redevelopment plan and cash in public favor as a result in his upcoming re-election bid.  Crotty’s view reflects special interest and money. Note how Mayor Crotty’s position has shifted from February of last year.  In a media article, Crotty had the following to say about the venue plans.

“Both have merit,” Crotty says. “But if there are bona fide investors with significant enough financing, that could make the difference.

According to Watson, there were bona fide private investors ready to soak almost $600 million into his plan, including $100 million from Watson’s group.  So there was no lack of financing on either side.  Evidently, something else is behind the downtown venue placement.

Still not convinced?

Look at our cast of supporting characters and perhaps that will help.  Project Hometown, the Orlando Magic, the Orlando City Council, various supportive media outlets, and county commissioners that wanted to push through their own demands by being swing voters in the decision (very well played by the way).

Perhaps the sad reality is that it seems none of the voting public stopped to really question this deal.  Was this a done deal from the outset?  It appears so, given all of the upper level support in the back pockets of Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.  Sure, others would contend that this ‘debate’ has gone on for months, but only among government officials, special interests, and the media.

Is this deal in the public interest?  According to the Mayors and their marketing strategists, it was certainly framed as such.  We’ll never know, as there has not been, and will not be, a public vote.

Although too little too late, let’s ask the question anyway.  Is placing all of the new venues downtown really necessary?  In other cities, one can find examples where venues are not always in the immediate downtown area, and they have not suffered.

Look at Charlotte, NC for an example.  While they have an NFL stadium in the heart of downtown, their NBA coliseum is located away from downtown completely.  Look at Atlanta and their venue locations.  Even the Dolphins stadium in Miami was moved outside of the city and is much better for it.

“Orlando is a unique community,” said Watson.  “Downtown should be the center of banking and government, while the South and East side consists of UCF, anchoring our technology, medicine and sciences.  South and West is where you’ll find the world’s best entertainment including Disney, Universal, the Convention Center, and more.  These centers of excellence can all be linked by transportation with Orlando International Airport in the center of that triangle. Then you’ve got an area that’s tough to beat.”

Would a shift in location hurt downtown growth and development?  Not likely.  Would the Magic draw less attendees?  Not likely, given the amount of people from surrounding counties who would have easier access to the I-Drive location. Would it affect the ability to attract cultural and music shows?  Again, this is not likely.  In fact, the bigger stadium would have competed size-wise against the St. Pete Times Forum.

Was pushing all of these venues through at one time in the public interest, or in special interest?  Regardless, the new downtown venue project is going forward.  Look for the new venues to be ready by September of 2010.  And I suppose there’s a silver lining to this story.   Hat’s off to Jim Pugh, who successfully raised almost $80 mil of the $110 mil required for the Performing Arts Center just from private donations.  Not only that, but he anted up 10% of the amount raised himself.

Many questions on both sides of the issue will certainly be answered over time.  If anything, let’s hope we all do a better job of scrutinizing these massive development plans in the future without pomp and circumstance.  The good news is that no one really loses in this fight.  Regardless of location, reasoning and interests, the important thing is that at least Orlando is growing, and that can mean a lot for the future of the city.

“This was a victory for our entire central Florida community,” said Mayor Dyer. “It’s proof that when we work together to make our home a better place, anything is possible.”

We shall see.

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