Another early morning in February, another opportunity for Mayor Buddy Dyer to tell us how we're on the brink of becoming "the next great American city." Then we drive back to the office, past blocks of empty storefronts, wondering what planet he lives on.
Feb. 25 marked Dyer's sixth — and most somber — state of the city address. Faced with the crippling reality of a deep recession, a tourism industry in a tailspin and a $1 billion-plus trio of venues that the city can't afford, the mayor had to walk the impossible tightrope between acknowledging the problems we face and projecting optimism. He wants you to believe that these problems are not his doing and that he's been fiscally responsible.
We scrutinized one of Dyer's state of the city addresses before (see "Dyer, annotated," Dec. 2, 2004) and it was an eye-opener. Below are snippets from Dyer's most recent address — you can read the whole thing at www.orlandoweekly.com — that we've run through the filter of logic, reason and facts.
Quote: "The task at hand is not easy. There are no quick fixes. We don't know if it's going to get worse before it gets better. This is the unknown. What we do know is: One, we cannot sit back and simply rely on the federal government for help. Two, because of our extraordinary progress over the last six years, we are in a better position to forge ahead when our national economy rebounds."
Reality check: The clever thing about Dyer referencing "the unknown" this early in his speech is that it gives him license to draw big shapes on a blank canvas. And he gets right to it, first with the mawkish statement that we can't "simply rely" on federal funding when the city has been angling for a healthy share of deficit spending stimulus monies, and then with the wild-eyed assertion that all of the empty condos, financially questionable venues agreements and failed businesses the city has incentivized somehow add up to "extraordinary progress" that will work to our advantage when the ships come back in. Someday, we'll all thank him.
Quote: "Our high-tech base and commitment to creating next-generation jobs is also garnering national attention. We rank fourth in Forbes magazine's list of ‘Most Wired Cities.'?"
Reality Check: And we rank seventh in Forbes' list of emptiest cities.
Quote: "Through our Parramore Kidz Zone, we have taken dramatic action to extend aid, education and opportunity to our city's at-risk youth. And we are seeing equally dramatic results. In 2006 there were 96 kids arrested in the 1-square-mile neighborhood of Parramore. Last year, only 51. That's a 47 percent decline in juvenile arrests. That's kids whose lives have been saved, who have been turned away from that irreversible path of crime."
Reality check: Score one for the mayor. Not only has juvenile crime in Parramore dropped off significantly, but so has overall crime. In January 2008, the neighborhood saw 1,188 reported crimes. This January, that number fell to 735 reported crimes — a 38 percent decrease. Then again, if overall crime and juvie crime fell at roughly the same rate, maybe we can't automatically credit the PKZ. And we should note that crime was at historically high levels citywide for the last few years, so this was a return to normalcy. Still, we'll give credit where credit is due.
Quote: "We have more than $80 million worth of city construction projects ready to go over the next year."
Reality check: Among other projects, they include a $1.5 million events center retention pond and $6 million for the "events center streetscape." Also, there's a $200,000 makeover slated for City Hall's balcony, which city staffers say leaks.
Quote: "At the request of our business community, we're chartering a comprehensive downtown retail and entertainment study to help us improve conditions for existing businesses and attract new ones. We are going to reinvent the way we market downtown."
Reality check: This $90,000 study was funded by the Downtown Development Board, the group that brought you the Downtown Ambassadors, and it's due in April. Of course, all that money will tell them is that marketing isn't the problem. The problem is what's down there — a hodgepodge of mostly unremarkable bars, law offices, shuttered restaurants and empty ground-floor retail space that was to be downtown's lifeblood.
Quote: "Our next pillar is ‘Buy Local Orlando.' And that's what I want residents and businesses to do. Whether it's business expenses, goods and services for the home, or even arts and entertainment, our residents can choose to spend their money in Central Florida. In this time of uncertainty, choosing to buy local can make all the difference. … The world travels to Orlando to vacation. Tourism is one of our main economic engines. But we can fuel that engine ourselves. In partnership with the Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau and our hospitality partners, we are encouraging residents to have their vacations right here at home this year, in the hospitality capital of the world."
Reality check: For all the nobility implied by localizing the economy — an effort commissioner Patty Sheehan apparently cribbed from the sustainability groups mushrooming up in the Mills Avenue/State Road 50 corridor — this fiscal isolationism rings hollow when issuing from the mouth of Big Development. Moments earlier in this speech, Dyer sang the praises of the Super Target retail dustbowl in the SoDo development. A few days prior to the speech in a city council meeting, commissioner Daisy Lynum hung her hopes on a new Wal-Mart in West Orlando. Staycations will do little to stop the city's budgetary bleeding, especially when it comes to keeping the venues (which depend on tourist taxes) afloat. Unless you plan to stay at an I-Drive hotel after your visit to Universal, you're not contributing to the tourist tax. And since most of the area's sales taxes go to the state — the city's budget relies primarily on property taxes — your Disney dollars stay at Disney.
Quote: "We are all too familiar with the devastating ripple effects that homelessness has on our community. That's why we made ending homelessness a priority for our region. … It's my privilege to officially announce the Obama administration has directed a record amount of funding to us, more than $6 million. This is more resources than we have ever had before to fight homelessness. … On behalf of the residents of the great city of Orlando, we have a message … to take back to our new President: His priority to end homelessness is also our priority."
Reality check: Under the mayor's administration, the city not only passed a law that forbade church groups from feeding homeless people in city parks, but arrested a guy for breaking that law. And now that a federal court has tossed the law, the city is blowing tens of thousands of your dollars to appeal. Meanwhile, the Coalition for the Homeless lies in disrepair, social service agencies in Parramore have been prohibited from expanding, and the city has treated the less fortunate as something to be kept out of sight.
Quote: "Outside of safety, no other issue has required the amount of time and personal attention that SunRail has in the past few months. The reason is clear. If we are to grow into the next great American city, then we must put transportation options in place, now, to handle our future population, which is expected to double in the next two decades. … I stood with Gov. `Charlie` Crist to unveil SunRail's economic impact, generating more than 250,000 jobs and almost $9 billion over the next quarter-century."
Reality check: Economic impact studies are curiously manipulable things, and the fudging here comes in the form of the "250,000 jobs" assertion. In the city- provided SunRail backup of the FDOT study, the employment numbers break down into 13,000 construction and operation jobs and 113,000 transit-oriented construction jobs within a half-mile of station stops. But even at 126,000 jobs, those numbers sound inflated. A 2007 economic study of a proposed 33-mile commuter rail project in Wisconsin projected 4,700 jobs in the construction phase, with 500 jobs added on for tourism and 71,000 jobs indirectly created by redevelopment along the train's route. The assumption that more development is going to occur along the already well-worn path of I-4 because of a new train is probably wishful thinking.
Quote: "Last night, we heard, again, about the power of public works projects from our new president. There is no bigger believer than me in the ability of these endeavors to put thousands of people to work and infuse money into our local economy. Long before this recession, using an FDR-style project was one of our goals when we came together as a region to create our community venues. … Let me be clear. The community venues and the jobs they create are now more important than ever."
Reality check: Here's what Dyer didn't mention in his section on the venues: the performing arts center or the Citrus Bowl. Not a word. It takes moxie to compare yourself to FDR while shoving aside the venue residents who were polled professed to care most about (the arts center) and the only one the tourism folks wanted (the Citrus Bowl) while building a basketball stadium for a billionaire with money you don't have.
Quote: "Responsible management of our fiscal health has been a hallmark of our administration. … As we begin to develop this year's budget, we are forecasting another difficult year. We will likely see a reduction in property tax revenue — as well as a reduction in sales tax and municipal revenue-sharing. Costs out of our control like health care are also likely to rise. … A higher millage rate would likely be required just to produce last year's revenues. But now is not the time. Instead, I propose that we live on less so that our citizens can retain more of their money to endure this crisis."
Reality check: Putting the venues aside, the city has seen plenty of unsavory financial practitioners walk through its doors; Cameron Kuhn and Lou Pearlman come to mind. Dyer's nimble word choice does not indicate where necessary budget cuts will come from, nor what services will be cut to make way for a balanced budget.
Quote: "The state of our economy may be shaken. The state of our minds may suffer from uncertainty. But the state of our city is resilient and ready to overcome any challenge!"
Reality check: Cheerleading is often the mayor's modus operandi, but in times like these a little humility is in order, or at least a dash of sincerity. Sure, Dyer hopes to catch some of Obama's optimism in a bottle, but Obama can afford to run the country on a deficit. The city doesn't have that luxury.