Thomas Chatmon’s introduction at Buddy Dyer’s State of Downtown address last week was nothing if not ebullient. “Every city has a mayor,” the Downtown Development Board director told the audience. “We have a leader.”
At one point Chatmon even attempted to kick off a sort of call-and-response chant in praise of the man he called “our general”: “If you believe downtown has progressed in the last 10 years, let me hear you say ‘Buddy’…”
“Buddy,” came the tepid, perfunctory reply, bespeaking support a mile wide and an inch deep. This was Dyer’s crowd – nearly 500 business-attired power brokers seated around circular tables on the floor of the Amway Center, eating cold chicken and pasta and washing it down with lukewarm cucumber water – but the mayor has never been one to inflame passions. Like it has been every year of his decade-long mayoralty, this State of Downtown was a pep rally for grown-ups – a place for hobnobbing and backslapping and speeches loaded with buzzwords for the suit-and-tie set, a time to celebrate how wonderful everything is. Also like every other year, Dyer’s speech was, well, quintessentially Dyer: boosterish, eternally sunny, unwilling to dwell on any of the city’s sore spots, middling both in its writing and recitation, delivered beneath the veneer of a plastic smile. There were no surprises or big reveals (excepting the names of the three new LYMMO lines: Grapefruit, Lime and Orange).
It did, however, brim with a sense of accomplishment: Despite the economic turmoil of the recession, despite the political fights over this building and the still-not-finished performing arts center down the street, despite those few weeks back in 2005 when he was suspended from office following a half-baked and soon-dropped felony indictment, despite the sundry criticisms of the many deals he’s struck over the years, despite all the shit that’s been thrown his way, Dyer had seen the mountaintop, and he was here to claim victory.
“Because of you,” Dyer proclaimed, “we are experiencing a downtown rebound – press, that’s the quote, ‘downtown rebound’ – unlike any our country has ever seen. Because of you, we are on the verge of what’s going to be the most exciting year in the history of downtown Orlando.” (Those lines were bolded in the printouts of the speech the mayor’s aides gave reporters, just to make sure we got the point.)
There’s no doubt that Buddy Dyer has over the last decade fundamentally imprinted his vision into downtown’s DNA. But for all the shiny glass-and-steel hood ornaments erected on his watch – for all the sterile but pretty facades forged to manufacture a “scene” for platinum cardholders, for all the generic, soulless commoditization that downtown planners mistake for culture – what’s under the hood isn’t always so alluring. Orlando remains an epicenter of the foreclosure crisis and the crime capital of Florida. At last count there were more than 10,000 homeless people who call our city home, and the city’s response has mostly been to push them out of sight, out of mind, going so far as to ban do-gooders from feeding them in public parks, where condo-dwellers might be discomfited by their presence. Central Florida, meanwhile, having long ago latched tightly to Disney’s breast, has the lowest median wages of any major metropolitan area in the country. Parramore, the blighted, mostly black district on downtown’s west side, looks much the same as it did a decade ago, with boarded-up windows and crumbling homes – once you drive a block or two past the arena, anyway.
These are the things the mayor pays but lip service to. His administration has been premised on the notion that bigger is better, that if downtown is infused with enough skyscrapers and sports teams and “cultural amenities,” the ugly stuff will sort itself out.
Downtown is bigger and glitzier than it was a decade ago. Of that there is no doubt. There are mixed-use high-rises and a movie theater and Paul McCartney concerts and quality restaurants and at least one good cocktail bar and soon a professional soccer team. None of that was there before Buddy Dyer, and most of it wouldn’t be without him.
But whether all that means it’s better is a more subjective question, and not as easy to answer as Dyer would have you believe.
In January 2003, Dyer was a 44-year-old former state senator who had lost a race for attorney general to Charlie Crist just two months earlier. He was still licking his wounds when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed then-Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood to secretary of state. Dyer – a Kissimmee-raised, Brown-educated lawyer suddenly out of office after a decade in Tallahassee, where he’d fostered a reputation as a business-friendly, aisle-crossing Democrat focused on education and health care issues – pounced at the opportunity.
So on that frigid January afternoon, an invigorated, jovial Dyer – much more charming in person than behind a lectern – trekked up and down streets in his College Park neighborhood with me in tow, knocking on doors, telling person after person, “Hi, I’m Buddy Dyer. I’m your neighbor from over on Bryn Mawr. I’ve been your state senator for the last 10 years, and now I’m running for mayor. I’d appreciate your consideration.”
He had no audacious initiative or agenda back then. More than once he admitted to not knowing enough about an issue to comment. He wanted downtown to look like Winter Park’s Park Avenue with bigger buildings. He was open but noncommittal to extended drinking hours. He didn’t want the city to build the Magic a new arena but was willing to negotiate if it kept the team in town. He said he’d be a consensus builder.
The one concrete thing Dyer offered was a promise to finally revitalize Parramore, the blighted, mostly black neighborhood on the west side of downtown. “If I don’t get that accomplished,” he said, “I will feel like I’ve failed.” Several weeks later, during his inauguration speech, he reiterated: “You can measure my success as mayor of Orlando by my ability to rebuild this once-proud neighborhood.”
For a man who campaigned in the abstract, Dyer quickly developed downtown ambitions. Soon after taking office he created the Downtown Strategic Transitions Team, a blue-ribbon confab of movers and shakers tasked with formulating a blueprint for the city’s core. Its 100-page report, “Downtown Orlando: 20-Point Strategic Plan,” released in September 2003, offered 166 recommendations.
Among its larger goals: keep the Magic downtown; build a performing arts center; lure a minor-league baseball team; construct a downtown movie theater; create “Cornerstone Projects,” including at the Jaymont-Tavistock block near Orange and Church streets; increase the number of parks; develop more affordable housing; improve safety; have a better downtown marketing program; and extend downtown drinking hours.
That drinking hours proposal, though fairly insignificant to the big picture, drew the biggest headlines and the loudest outcry. (Not coincidentally, it hasn’t happened yet.) The mayor was also criticized for excluding most of Parramore from the task force’s jurisdiction. But on the whole, it was a bold, largely progressive, even exciting concept. And then we saw how it would play out.
In early December came the first tangible signs of progress – and a foreshadowing of how the new guys at City Hall would operate. Dyer rammed through a $22 million incentive package for his friend and supporter Cameron Kuhn to build a $140 million mixed-use high-rise, called the Plaza, near Orange and Church, even though the city’s own records showed that Kuhn’s “probability of severely delinquent payment is higher than the national average.” Behind the scenes, the mayor’s team moved heaven and earth on Kuhn’s behalf, bending all manner of city rules in the process. At one point, Dyer’s team demanded that city commissioners sign confidentiality agreements about the Kuhn deal.
The Plaza still hasn’t shaken the stench from which it arose. It opened in 2007, almost two years behind schedule – the much-ballyhooed movie theater didn’t open until 2009 – and has been plagued by lawsuits ever since. Kuhn eventually declared bankruptcy and walked away from the project.
But at the end of the day Dyer got what he wanted. “How many buildings do you know that the original developer actually was the one that ended up making money off of them? Very few of them,” Dyer said in a recent interview. “And from a city perspective, it’s of no great consequence to us whether Cameron made money or didn’t make money. There’s a quality building that’s both residential and office and retail, some mixed use, with a movie theater in it.” More importantly, the Plaza made people “believe that we were going to stand behind everything that we said about revitalizing downtown.”
As the years rolled by, more mixed-use high-rises dotted the Orlando skyline: 55 West, the Solaire, the Vue, the Paramount. In 2007, Dyer pushed through his pièce de résistance, a controversial $1.1 billion deal to build a new arena for the Orlando Magic and a new performing arts center and to rehab the aging Citrus Bowl. (Of that package, the arena, by far the least popular project in polls, was the only one that happened on time.) Just last week, the city council signed off on a stadium for Orlando City Soccer Club, which is seeking a Major League Soccer franchise.
“We’ve done a lot of big pieces of what types of amenities you want in your downtown so that you can attract the bright, talented people that you want to both live and work in your downtown,” Dyer says.
Since he took office the number of downtown residential units has increased some 80 percent, to 15,000. Another 75,000 people work downtown. Under his tenure downtown has seen the construction of 47 “major projects,” as the city terms them, worth nearly $2 billion, everything from the condo high-rises to the new federal courthouse to the UCF Center for Emerging Media. There are another nine projects currently underway, and six more are scheduled to break ground in 2014.
That’s proof that downtown is becoming, as Dyer so often puts it, “world-class.” And that’s not counting SunRail, the commuter train Dyer championed that will begin service next year; the Orlando Magic’s proposed $100 million arts and entertainment complex; or the Creative Village, the planned redevelopment of the Centroplex site into a “tech hub” housing 5,000 high-tech jobs.
Of course, Dyer first pitched the Creative Village in 2007. Six years later, it’s a pile of dirt.
“That has not progressed nearly as quickly as we’d hoped,” Dyer told me, “but I have to say that everything that anybody in this country got planned in 2006 and 2007 drastically changed over the next three years, so I’m not uncomfortable with where we are because that’s always been a long-term vision anyways.”
In practice, Dyer has been less a consensus builder than a bulldozer, plowing over a pliant city council and an Orange County Commission that, after some griping for the media, almost always acceded to his will.
That’s not to say it’s all gone swimmingly. Beyond the Plaza’s woes, the Citrus Bowl renovation and the performing arts center have yet to manifest, beset by funding shortfalls and, in the case of the arts center, seeming incompetence. The mayor’s exuberance in offering tax breaks and incentive packages to developers, meanwhile, rubbed some former supporters the wrong way.
“Buddy is plenty smart,” says Doug Head, a member of the Downtown Strategic Transitions Team who, as former head of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, rallied his party behind Dyer in 2003. “It is my view that he’s completely lost his way in terms of being the progressive he said he was going to be when he went into office.”
“I thought he was very interested in seeing something happen downtown,” says Phil Diamond, the former city commissioner who ran unsuccessfully against Dyer in 2012. “I had the sense that [downtown] was his top priority, and he was willing to do things, even unconventional things, to see downtown improve.”
In the 10 years he spent on the city council, the diminutive, Midwestern-nice Diamond often found himself the sole objector to the mayor’s incentive packages, especially for condos that, in the red-hot market of the early 2000s, were probably going to happen without the city’s help. It wasn’t the nature of the mayor’s goals itself, Diamond says, but rather “whether they were good deals for the city.”
At least in some cases, Diamond’s concerns – about the venues in particular – were well-founded. Last year, Fitch Ratings downgraded the Orlando Community Redevelopment Agency’s bond rating because downtown property values hadn’t increased as expected. Fitch also suggested that the CRA had essentially maxed out its borrowing capacity in the venues deal. (The CRA maintains an A rating, and Fitch’s outlook is “stable.” The city says its interest rates were unaffected.) In addition, last week both the Citrus Bowl and performing arts center were back before the city council asking for more money, $25 million for the arts center and $12.5 million for the Citrus Bowl.
“I didn’t think the plan was financially feasible,” Diamond says. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it turned out.”
Then again, the sky hasn’t fallen yet, and the city’s quite confident it never will. The CRA, barring any future real estate calamities, is fine. So too is the city’s budget, more or less. While there was a projected $12 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, the city had more than enough in reserves to cover it. And the city’s property tax rate is lower than that of most big Florida cities.
But even as the city sunk billions of dollars into these ventures, as high-rise after high-rise reached to the sky, as the mayor devoted his time and energy to securing the arena and performing arts center, the things that will define his legacy, the city’s many other needs – crime, Parramore, poverty, a stagnant low-wage economy, the homeless – seemed glossed over, secondary to those things that will make us “world-class,” whatever that means. Ask Dyer about those issues, and the answer you’ll get will probably boil down to “I’m working on it.”
The stats that rank Orlando as the highest-crime city in Florida and one of the most dangerous in the country are skewed because they’re calculated on a per-resident basis, and don’t take into account the 50 million tourists who visit each year. And anyway, crime is down from its mid-2000s peak.
The city is still digging out of the recession, which only “re-emphasized to us that you can’t be wholly reliant on tourism and home building as two of the major components in your economy,” Dyer says when asked about the local economy’s reliance on low-wage jobs. That’s why he’s pushing the Creative Village and Medical City – the 650-acre health and life sciences park near Lake Nona – so hard, to buttress “industries that we already have clusters in and that we can grow.” He went out of his way to note that “Disney has more engineers, actually, as employees of Disney than the rest of the engineering companies in Central Florida combined, so there are well-paying tourism jobs in the theme parks and arenas as well.”
When asked about his administration’s perceived hostility toward the homeless – in 2009 the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty ranked Orlando the third-meanest city in the country toward the homeless – he responds with an anecdote: “One of my police officers yesterday was talking to me about the homeless. He said there’s a lot of new homeless, and they say that a lot of people move here who are transients because it is known as a place that is particularly friendly to the homeless. A comment was made by one of them, ‘Hey, I can get up to five meals a day in downtown Orlando.’”
Next year, he points out, the Coalition for the Homeless will open a new, long-needed men’s service center, funded by $6.6 million from the city and county. That more comprehensive center will replace the old men’s pavilion – an unsettling, sometimes-dangerous, concrete-floored open-air warehouse where homeless men can spend the night – but it will also serve fewer people.
“I can tell you I’ve never been involved in an issue that has more silos and more turf than the provision of homeless services,” Dyer says. “So the homeless population has certainly grown and the economy has had a large impact on them, but in terms of providing basic services” – his emphasis – “I think Orlando does a pretty good job at that.” In his State of Downtown speech, he announced a campaign to “raise awareness” about homeless children and families.
How would Dyer grade himself on what he once called the measure of his success, Parramore revitalization?
‘The best thing that our administration has done by far is Parramore Kidz Zone,” he responds. “By every measure, it has been an unmitigated success.” Launched in 2006, that program conducts outreach to Parramore’s youth through educational programs, summer camps and sports activities. “We had a record number of our Parramore Kidz Zone kids go to college this year, 27. Juvenile crime is down over the course of the start of PKZ almost 80 percent [87 percent, according to Dyer’s State of Downtown address]. Teenage pregnancies are down a significant amount.”
That’s certainly something to be proud of. But for a man who a decade ago told us to “measure my success” by Parramore, boasting so effusively of the Parramore Kidz Zone rings a bit hollow. Parramore appears more destined for a seemingly inevitable gentrification than “revitalization,” as the poverty and crime associated with that district are swept up in a slow tide of development aimed at making the west side of I-4 look like an extension of the east, and scattered such that they become some other neighborhood’s problem, preferably one a little farther from our “world-class” downtown.
“I don’t know if I would necessarily call it gentrification,” the mayor responds. “But my vision is a mixed-income neighborhood, and I see College Park.” Defined on his own terms, this is the proof of Dyer’s legacy: Of those 166 recommendations the Downtown Strategic Transitions Team offered a decade ago, 136 are either complete or “in progress,” the city says. The two major unfulfilled goals are the minor-league baseball team, which has been subsumed by the city’s more successful push for Major League Soccer, and the extended downtown drinking hours, which the mayor is still trying to hash out.
Whatever your thoughts on what Dyer’s done or how he’s done it, you can’t say the mayor hasn’t had a vision. He set goals, and in many cases – with some hiccups here and there – he achieved them. Many of those goals are unambiguously laudable: inching forward on better public transportation, for example, or the renewed emphasis on sustainable urban infill rather than suburban sprawl.
The question, though, as Dyer heads toward the homestretch of what some observers believe will be his final term, is what his legacy means for his successors, for the Orlando of 2020 or 2050. Behind the dressed-up facade of multimillion-dollar high-rises and venues, what is downtown Orlando, exactly? What makes it important or interesting? Or are we instead all dressed up with no place to go?
The mayor, for his part, seems contented. There’s stuff yet to be done, projects yet to be completed, but he knows that the Orlando he leaves behind will be bigger and flashier and, in his estimation, more “world-class” than the one he took over 10 years ago. Last year Dyer even flirted with parlaying his successes here into a gubernatorial bid.
He passed on that chance, because “we have a lot of things that we’ve started. Some of these things just take a long time to get done, and if you don’t have continued continuity of effort they don’t get done, SunRail being a good example of that. I just feel like I need to be here to finish the performing arts center, this soccer [stadium], Medical City, the Creative Village – and I just haven’t finished what I started.”