Here’s how it could all fall apart: The good people of Peoria, Poughkeepsie, Pittsburgh and other American burgs that aren’t alliterative but are flattened by the recession decide that, seeing as they’ve lost their jobs, they are going to have to cut out that vacation to Orlando this year. They promised the kids they could swim with the dolphins, but something has to give.
Hotel rooms don’t fill up quite the way they used to and there aren’t enough Brits on holiday in the world to make up for the fact that Americans whose homes have been taken by the bank tend to want to cut out the frills.
Empty hotel rooms mean tourist-tax revenues drop. Tourist-tax revenues are the money that is pledged to repay a portion of the bonds Orlando wants to sell to pay for a new arena, a performing arts center and renovations to the Citrus Bowl. This is already happening. A Jan. 25 story in the Orlando Sentinel states that hotel occupancy levels dropped almost 4 percent in December as compared to December 2006. And December is a historically busy travel month.
Meanwhile on the real estate front, home values continue their slide, with the condo market leading the charge down. A large chunk of downtown Orlando is in a special taxing district called the Community Redevelopment Agency, which has also pledged its revenue to paying venues bonds. CRA revenues are derived from escalating property values. See the problem?
And let’s not forget that the city is banking on earning some $90 million toward paying for the venues, including $20 million for the performing arts center, by selling the land under the Centroplex, where the Amway Arena and the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center now stand, to a developer to put up -– you guessed it – more condos and more retail.
Maybe it will take Wall Street to put the brakes on our sad aspirations to spend our way into world-class-city status. As this column goes to press, the bonds the city wants to issue to pay for the venues still aren’t sold nearly two months after the deal was supposed to get rolling. The market doesn’t care about Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s legacy, or our inferiority complex; it just wants to be repaid, with interest.
It’s impossible to overstate just how pie-in-the-sky Orlando’s financing plan for the arena, the performing arts center and the Citrus Bowl really is. This nearly $2 billion borrowing binge (the city and its lapdog, the Sentinel, like to put the figure at $1.1 billion, conveniently forgetting about the interest that has to be repaid) is a house of cards that was specious in the best economic times. It is predicated on steady-to-rising revenues from the tourist tax, and rising property values in the downtown Community Redevelopment Area. It was crafted by politicians who went out of their way to make sure the taxpayers ultimately responsible for the tab had no say in the matter. And just to make sure you really know who is boss around here, the arena itself is a taxpayer-funded handout to an out-of-state billionaire.
In other cities that would call that a scandal. In apathetic Orlando, it’s business as usual. This column goes to press Tuesday night before the election results are in, but if Dyer -– the principle architect behind the venues deal – isn’t re-elected by a comfortable margin, I’ll eat a copy of this newspaper.
Like Glenda Hood before him, Dyer is a visionless pol whose concept of urban renewal involves subsidies to developers, often his friends. Cameron Kuhn is Dyer’s buddy and hand-chosen savior of downtown. Now that Kuhn is facing foreclosure on some of his property -– The Plaza’s parking garage and another development site downtown, along with his Windermere home -– we are about to discover just how threadbare our leadership really is. Kuhn also owns Church Street Station, which means that property will remain as lifeless as it was the last time a snake-oil salesman came through time offering city leaders the moon and the stars. You may remember him; his name is Lou Pearlman.
Nonetheless, we march bravely into the future behind a mayor who is willing to ignore economic reality, and even the possibility of a recession, to build three venues that few outside of this city’s powerful elite wanted in the first place. If it isn’t obvious to you by now that our elected officials, Buddy Dyer in particular, have sold this city’s future down the river, it very soon will be.