If it were it up to me, Orange County's tourist taxes would be used to build roads or schools, or to fund health care, or build a new shelter for the homeless. But state law forbids using this money for any of these purposes. It can only go toward promoting tourism, sports and culture. That's it. End of story. And it's not going to change; the tourism industry owns Tallahassee.
That industry is flourishing nicely, thank you very much. Tourism revenues have exceeded estimates by 12 percent the last two years. And each year $40 million from the tourist tax goes to promoting it, as if people need slick advertising campaigns to know Disney World is here.
It's time the rest of us got something out of this deal. Since it's not going to be better schools or roads, it might as well be a new arena and improved Citrus Bowl. Yes, building the Orlando Magic a new arena is corporate welfare, but so is spending tourist dollars to pad hotelier Harris Rosen's bank account. Spending money on new sports stadiums is an infinitely wiser investment.
Let's start with the Citrus Bowl. Tom Mickle, who headed Florida Citrus Sports before dying of cancer earlier this year, was a visionary. Before he passed, he dropped a bombshell on me: "The possibility of the NFL coming to Orlando is real," he said, "and it's going to happen in the next 25 years."
Mickle never told me something that didn't happen. Sure, Florida has three NFL teams already, but the idea isn't as unlikely as it seems. Three NFL cities could lose their teams within Mickle's 25-year window: Minnesota, New Orleans and Jacksonville. With a better stadium, Orlando could nab one of them. We're the 19th-largest television market in the country. Within 25 years we'll be 17th. Any look at TV ratings will tell you that we love football. It's a natural choice.
If the NFL doesn't come, spending $252 million on the Citrus Bowl is still more important than dumping $376 million into a performing arts center — which is a worthwhile endeavor, though it needs to be slimmed down — or even $385 million on a new arena. It's the only one bringing people in from out of town, with two huge NCAA bowl games — the Champs Sports Bowl and the Capital One Bowl — and the Florida Classic, the match between historically black colleges Bethune-Cookman College and Florida A&M University. Collectively, those events contribute $95.5 million a year to the local economy, according to Florida Citrus Sports. The big fish — a bowl championship series game, the ACC conference championship or a national championship game — aren't out of reach either.
Detractors joke that with the University of Central Florida building its own stadium, the Citrus Bowl will be left to tractor pulls. What's wrong with that? If the market so dictates, bring on the tractor pulls, rodeos and Kenny Chesney concerts. Even hayseed events will fill seats and pump money into the local economy, and that's what this is all about. Big events of all stripes want to come to Orlando, but they won't if our facilities suck. And if there's one thing everybody agrees on, it's that the Citrus Bowl sucks.
We also need a new arena downtown. And downtown only. It's vital to Mayor Buddy Dyer's larger revitalization plan. The Magic will be the building's primary tenant, so owner Rich DeVos needs to pay up — at least $60 million, probably more. Ultimately, however, the building exists for the rest of us.
Let's face it: Orlando has little sense of community. We're all from different places and have nothing to bind us together. That breeds indifference. We have primary elections with 16 percent turnout. Even major events, like the disappearance of a young Metrowest woman or three successive hurricanes battering our city, fail to connect us to each other.
There was a moment when that wasn't so. In 1996, the Magic reached the NBA finals, and this city rallied behind them like never before. Sports does that. Look at the Red Sox fans in Boston, or the jersey-clad revelers at any sports bar on Sunday afternoon.
When I graduated college, my wife and I decided that we would only move to a city that had a pro sports team. Why? If a city has a professional team, it's a professional city, and young professionals can make it in that city.
Even if you've never seen a Magic game, don't know what "NFL" stands for, or would rather watch Everybody Loves Raymond reruns than see a Rolling Stones concert, these projects still deserve your support. If nothing else, it's time we get something back from the tourism industry that has taken so much from us.
Mike Synan covers politics (and occasionally sports) for 580 WDBO-AM.
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