In case you haven't heard -- and chances are you haven't -- Winter Park voters will choose a new mayor Tuesday. The election is a low-key affair featuring two affluent, white, gray-haired, suit-and-tied, Republican 60-somethings who collectively raised $25,000. (By comparison, Orlando's recent mayoral race featured eight candidates who collectively raised more than $1.6 million.)
The gig they're after isn't particularly powerful. It's part-time, pays $3,000 a year and is designed to be weak. The mayor is another member on the four-person city commission, which sets policy and delegates administrative responsibilities to a commission-selected city manager (for the last 10 years and three mayors, that has been James Williams). To use business terms, the mayor is the CEO to the commission's board of directors: He's there to help direct policy.
The two men seeking the job -- Joseph Wayne Jones, 66; and Kenneth "Kip" Marchman, 61 -- are strikingly similar for political opponents. They're both businessmen: Marchman runs a law firm; Jones an investment company. Both belong to the Winter Park Rotary Club. Neither is an ideologue. Both speak softly yet eloquently. Neither wants to dramatically rock the boat. Neither has the political charisma to seek higher office, and neither seems particularly interested in doing so. Marchman served on the Winter Park Commission for five years before losing the mayor's race in 2000. This is Jones' first foray into politics.
Yes, it's a dull race; doubly so in comparison with Orlando's recent mudslinging fest. But I sat down with the candidates anyway. Winter Park is, after all, among the region's cultural hubs. With 26,000 residents, it's Orange County's third-biggest city (Apopka is No. 2). And the city is at a crossroads. Its three-year battle with Florida Power is nearing conclusion, the once-thriving Park Avenue retail area has suffered since Winter Park Village came along, and commercial redevelopment continues to push poor blacks out of their homes on the city's west side.
Florida Power is, without question, the 800-pound gorilla in this contest. A bit of background: Winter Park sold electrical equipment to Florida Power 75 years ago and has since contracted with the company to provide utility service. Lately, however, rates went up and service deteriorated. Blackouts became common as Florida Power started cutting costs ahead of its 2000 buyout by North Carolina-based Progress Energy.
When time came to renew the contract in 2001, Progress refused to insert a clause allowing Winter Park to buy back its electrical infrastructure -- power lines, wires, etc. -- if service continued to decline. So Winter Park sued to force Progress Energy to pay the $1.7 million in franchise fees the city claims it is owed, and to settle on a price for the buy-back. The city estimates the system's value at $17 million. Progress Energy wants $89 million. The findings of the arbitration panel are due this spring.
From there, city leaders will let voters decide whether or not to float bonds to buy the equipment. (If voters agree, Winter Park will either manage the utility itself or contract with another company -- Orlando Utilities Commission is the safest bet.)
Both candidates support the buyout provided it doesn't cost too much, though that's not the message Marchman is sending out to voters.
"Where I differ from my opponent is in regard to the price that Winter Park should pay to purchase the electric system," he wrote in a mailed letter. "He in essence seems to be saying that we should buy it at any price. This is an imprudent business practice if there ever was one. Who in the world would agree to buy something without knowing what the purchase price would be?"
That's untrue, Jones replies: "There is no certainty whatsoever." Based on a similar arbitration between Florida Power and Casselberry, which saw the arbitrator's number inch toward the city's price tag rather than the company's price tag, Jones expects the final number to be about $30 million.
In turn, he accuses Marchman of being unclear on Florida Power. In fact, by the end of his own mailer, Marchman seems to hedge, saying he "wholeheartedly" supports the purchase and calls it the "only way to remedy this situation." He doesn't say what he would do if the arbitrator comes back with a high price tag.
On the ongoing redeveloping in west Winter Park -- which the city has been actively pursuing since forming its Community Redevelopment Agency in 1991, likely displacing hundreds of black residents in the process -- both candidates talk of "market forces" driving development, but stress the importance of encouraging residential, rather than commercial, development. Jones wants to use some of the $1 million in CRA money to "give a hand-up." That means paying to train the poor inhabitants of the west side so they can "participate in the economic miracle that's taken place there."
Marchman suggests using CRA money for loans to rehabilitate some of the more dilapidated parts of the area. He says the city "can't lose any more residential zoning. That's all the city can do. It's not constitutional to say, 'You can't sell your property,' but you can maintain residential zoning." The same principle applies for east-side developments like the Lincoln Park Apartments, which are slated be razed to make way for a church parking lot. Marchman voted against the deal.
Downtown living, Marchman adds, is key to invigorating Park Avenue, which has been hurt by the upscale dining, retail and movie screens at Winter Park Village. If more people live in downtown apartments, Marchman reasons, they'll shop downtown too. But to lure people downtown -- Marchman pictures them in second-story studios above shops -- the city will have to find space for them to park.
When City Hall is rebuilt -- there are no immediate plans, but he thinks it will be necessary in the "not too distant future," Marchman wants to include a parking garage. If the post office relocates -- again, just speculation -- then a parking lot can go in its current digs at the intersection of New York and Canton avenues, about two blocks west of Park Avenue.
Jones' plans for Park Avenue are more pie-in-the-sky. He wants to copy the Winter Park Village model and build a three-tier downtown: Food, shopping and entertainment. Specifically, he wants the owners of the art-house Enzian Theater to build a three-screen complex in the Park Avenue corridor.
For parking, he wants to lease out the top half of the Rollins College parking garage for city employees, thus creating 300 spots. He confesses, however, that he hasn't yet spoken with Rollins, so he doesn't know if the space is for rent or even available. Also, with police moving out of their offices adjacent to City Hall, Jones wants to move the Parks and Recreation Department in that spot, and "blacktop and stripe" the Parks and Recreation building on Lyman Avenue. The price tag, he speculates, would be "thousands, as opposed to millions."
Nothing radical, mind you. This is Winter Park.