Interview with Commissioner Antonio “Tony” Ortiz, District 2, City of Orlando
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: March 15, 2012
WONO: Commissioner Ortiz, you are running for a second term. What are some of your key accomplishments in your first term?
Tony Ortiz: There are so many things we have been able to accomplish, foremost, by the Grace of God. My greatest accomplishment has been bringing the community together, which is most important. We created a Business Council and a Neighborhood Leaders Council. The Business Council became what is known today, as the Semoran Business Partnership with over 70 members including, representatives from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, universities in the district, like Kaiser University and churches, like Prince of Peace. Also represented are schools like Acceleration and our small businesses – the mom and pops. We have attorneys and doctors, so the whole community is working together.
I wanted to do this because, in order to grow and develop, there needs to be a good foundation. And unless you have the community working with you, you will not be able to accomplish anything. Communication is the greatest problem we have in our community. We have crime problems, we have all kinds of problems, but a lack of communication is the greatest problem of all. If the government is not in tune with the community and the community doesn’t know what the government is doing, then you can accomplish very little that’s beneficial to everyone.
So, after creating those councils, the first thing we did was to prepare a Vision Plan for the district, for redevelopment of the blighted areas. We attacked those areas where businesses were deteriorating in the community; bars posing as restaurants, and we got rid of those. For example, we had a methadone clinic that was problematic and that was moved out of the district. Also, we had problems in other areas where people claimed drug dealing was taking place. So, we created a Task Force including OPD, MBI, IRS, ABT, and Code Enforcement and we took care of those problems too.
Now, the community is organized and we have the infrastructure – the fundamentals. We meet every month with the Semoran Business Partners; as a matter of fact, we met this morning. We stay on top of the issues, so we know where the problems are and we work with all these partners to resolve the issues in the district. So there’s that ‘communication thing’ going on all the time.
In addition, we have increased our collaboration with other public officials, with county commissioners, the mayor, and other city commissioners. The Mayor has supported us tremendously in our efforts to revitalize the Corridor. Once we established a plan we started working to redevelop Semoran. We created a wall along the Semoran Corridor to protect our citizens from accidents. Recently, a car crashed against the wall and if it hadn’t been for that wall it would have ended up in the back of those houses.
The Danube Plaza, which was very blighted has also been revitalized. We passed an overlay in the district to avoid bad businesses. No more check cashing places, no more pawn shops, no more palm reading places and no used car sales businesses. We are going to bring vibrant businesses into the community. We took care of all our infrastructure needs – lights, sidewalks, pot holes, and we do that on a continuous basis.
Another of my major accomplishments has been with our seniors and our kids, a great source of pride to me. We brought the first Seniors versus Crime office to Orange County. The office works to combat fraud and abuse committed against the elderly. It’s a very solid program that’s carried out in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office. We work to ensure that there’s funding for our seniors’ programs, as we see them as those who fought in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. These are the people who made our nation the super power that we have today, and it’s only fair that we make sure they live their golden years in an area where they have everything they need to enjoy those years. So, we continually attend to their needs.
Regarding our kids, when I got elected four years ago, we had only one baseball league; now we have three baseball leagues. The two centers in District 2 – Englewood Community Center and the Dover Shore Community Center – are the busiest in the city. All kinds of sports take place at those facilities – football, soccer, ping pong, swimming, baseball, chest – you name it. The Orlando Magic helped us tremendously in revitalizing those centers. We now have a computer room and a playroom for the kids at the Englewood Community Center. There’s also a new roof and new floors. There’s a new playground at the Dover Shore Community Center. We have made sure that our kids don’t lack programs in which they can engage.
We have worked hand-in-hand with the Orange County School Board. I am part of the after school All Stars Program. We have provided our junior schools like Jackson Middle School with a tremendous program where we attend over 200 kids a day. They are involved in every aspect of the after school program – we provide mentorship, help with homework and they are involved in sports. With summer around the corner, these facilities are going to be packed with our kids. In other words, by keeping our kids busy and their minds busy, we keep them away from getting into trouble. That’s one of the reasons, not the only reason, why crime has continually gone down in District 2.
Over the past three to four years violent crime has gone down by 33 percent in the district. So, we are doing our fair share in helping to reduce overall crime in Orlando and that’s because our community is working together.
For the past two years, two of our neighborhoods have won the Neighborhood Watch of the Year award. Again, that’s due in large measure to our community working together and this has led to a spirit of unity within the community.
In terms of looking ahead, briefly, we recently got $2.4 million dollars from the Department of Transportation to revitalize the corridor. We are going to revitalize from Curry Ford Road to Colonial, expand sidewalks and put pavers on the mediums with tree wells. We are going to put very vibrant and visible cross walks, change the light fixtures to improve lighting and plan on changing the entire façade. That’s Phase One and then we will go from Curry Ford Road to the Beeline.
We are doing all of this because, we believe that if big companies are to settle here and create jobs, we need to make this area inviting. The Semoran Corridor has the greatest potential of all. Think about this – there’s the Medical City, including the Burnham Institute and UCF in the southeast; directly south of us is the Orlando International Airport; northeast of us we have UCF, Kaplan University, and the Research Park; and west of us we have the venues, the theme parks and shopping malls. So, everything is adjacent to us within 15-20 minutes and the Semoran Corridor is the main gateway to the city.
Last year, we broke all records with 51 million tourists coming to Orlando and so, we need to make this area vibrant and we are well on our way to doing so. Things are changing and people are noticing the changes. It looks much, much cleaner now. Whereas in the past, people didn’t walk around much at night, but now we see families out and about, because they feel the peace and tranquility. So, as a community, we are proud of the successes we have achieved so far.
WONO: Commissioner, you have touched on a lot of things and one that you mentioned is the question of jobs and making the area inviting for businesses to come in. The Orlando metro area has an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. Could you comment specifically on the potential for job creation in District 2?
Tony Ortiz: Recently, K-Mart and Perkins closed their doors in our district. This had nothing to do with us, as this is a nationwide problem; many of their facilities were closed around the country. But, by revitalizing the Semoran Corridor, by making it vibrant, by changing the façade and based on the population density and the fact that over 48,000 vehicles travel through that corridor daily, it is just a perfect place to do business. We also have representatives working to attract good, vibrant businesses.
Through the Semoran Business Partnership, we obtained the Market Street designation. With this designation we are able to assist local associations with funding. This is how it works. In the first year, we put up $50,000 and the association will put up $10,000. In the second year we put up $45,000 and they put in $15,000. So, they increase their funding by $5,000 and we decrease by a similar amount over a 5-year period. With these funds, persons are tasked with bringing vibrant businesses to the area and this is part of creating more jobs and creating more opportunities for our community.
WONO: Commissioner, do you have any projected figures on the number of jobs that might be created?
Tony Ortiz: Well, we did lose some big companies recently, but on the other hand, there are new businesses coming into the area, although some of that information is not yet public. But, I can say this, there are new businesses coming into the plaza just north of SR 408; we have a bakery coming, and also a ping pong sports facility. Also, on the corner of Lake Underhill and Curry Ford Road, in the shopping center, there’s going to be expansion of a grocery store. And at the Semoran Plaza a cellular phone store will be opening up. There’s also professionals looking for office space in the area, including development at the corner of Stonewall Jackson and Semoran.
About a year ago, ESPN came into the area too. I believe as we continue to revitalize the area, more businesses will come in. So it’s moving, not super fast, but it is moving and I foresee in the next four years, it is going to get even better. Already, the area has undergone a 180 degree change and given the overall state of the economy, I think we have done pretty good.
WONO: One of the critical problems still facing a lot of people in the area and in certain part of the country, generally, is home foreclosures. How do you see that playing out and what particularly have you done in your area about this?
Tony Ortiz: The first thing was to start a Housing Revitalization Program. We revitalized about 16 homes, especially those that were really decayed. As a matter of fact, we had a case where after the hurricanes this house was basically in shambles. It had fallen apart and these people were living basically out in the open. We came over and we rebuilt their home.
There is also the Neighborhood Stabilization Program where the city is buying homes, revitalizing the homes and helping people with up to 40 percent of the down payment. Mayor Dyer has seen our efforts and how we are revitalizing the district. The last Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant that we got was $3 million. We will use it to revitalize the areas of Monterey, the perimeter between Conway, Lake Underhill, Semoran, and Curry Ford and we are planning to expand, possibly, a little more east.
Last year we did the OUC Weatherization Program. We partnered with OUC and worked to weatherize older homes where seniors live and where their bills were pretty high. We changed the insulation of 359 homes in the district. Currently, we are doing exactly the same thing in the Hibiscus and Englewood areas. There is also the Power Program, which is basically the same thing – weatherization – making sure that our houses have good insulation to bring down the cost of electric bills.
WONO: Recently there was the NBA All-Stars event at the Amway Center. The city projected that the economic impact would have been about $80 million. Yet, many small businesses complained that they didn’t necessarily benefit, some attributing it to the fence that was put up. Are you concerned that small businesses didn’t benefit from such a significant event? And were you concerned about the fence?
Tony Ortiz: I was disturbed, by all means. The only problem we had was, when an institution like the NBA comes in they tell you what they want and how they want it. But to the credit of our people here, as I understand it, we approached the businesses and we gave them an option. For example, one of the things I heard was that some of the businesses in front of the Amway were asked if they wanted to be in the fenced area, or not. The reason they didn’t want to is, because the fence was going to be in place for longer than the days of the games, they thought it would affect their businesses.
WONO: Yes that is what I heard also. The other thing I understand too is, if they opted to be inside the fence they had a limited number of hours their businesses could remain open.
Tony Ortiz: I can find out that information for you. But when I inquired, again, I was told that they had the option to be inside the fenced area and the businesses opted not to be. I wasn’t involved in the negotiations, but did ask our staff, “Why all this?” and was told that there were security guidelines. According to what was explained, Homeland Security was involved in this because of the matter of potential threats. But, on the other hand I was a little disturbed because I heard from businesses and friends with small businesses. For example, there was a hot dog stand that a gentleman wanted to operate and he was referred to our staff to see where it could be placed. Frankly, I was a little disappointed at the attention he got, or lack of it, and how this was handled.
I think we left a good impression with the NBA All-Stars for them to return. But if they are to come back, we have to learn from the mistakes we made this time. It must be made clear that if you are coming to Orlando, you embrace what we have here. In other words, this is how it is and I think that our small businesses have to be taken into consideration before anything else.
WONO: Commissioner, there is a perception that a lot of what is happening in Orlando benefits largely big businesses and small businesses continue to get squeezed out. Do you share that view?
Tony Ortiz: First of all, the small businesses are the ones who maintain this nation. They are the ones who are producers in this nation. As a nation, we are not exporting enough, and there are a lot of small businesses that have much to offer. We are not actually capitalizing on every chance available to us and we need to make sure we do.
I don’t have a problem with big companies, so long as they include the small companies. I don’t have a problem with big companies because they are the driving force in many ways, producing a lot of jobs. But let’s talk; let’s sit down at the table and devise a plan where everyone wins – big and small. Again, the greatest problem is communication, we are not communicating enough, and we aren’t dealing with the details. It’s the big guys coming over here saying, “This is what we ought to do.” No, let’s go in and sit down and look at all aspects. How can everyone benefit from this? I’m not pointing fingers, all I’m saying is let’s sit down and make sure that when we leave this meeting, everyone is happy.
WONO: Is it your sense and are you receiving feedback that small businesses are getting squeezed out and not benefiting as they ought to?
Tony Ortiz: I don’t think they are being squeezed out in that sense. But I think they are not getting all of the opportunities that they ought to get. There are so many factors involved. Remember those businesses, and this is something I learned in school, before you start a business, you have to do what is called a feasibility study to see if that business has the potential to be successful in that area. That is why we have the incubator, number one in the nation, and by the way, it is in our district too. This incubator teaches you to do those kinds of studies, to see what is your potential to succeed in a particular area.
We have to help small businesses determine what they are going to sell or produce and also determine the best location for them to succeed. Before we allow businesses to settle in particular locations, let’s sit down and be honest with each other. We must ask the hard questions: ‘Are you going to succeed here?’, ‘Is your business best suited to be at the Amway Center or located at the airport?’ Tell them the truth and let’s help them to succeed someplace else if that’s how the feasibility study turns out. I think that our economic development department has the potential to help the community in that manner.
WONO: But is that being done?
Tony Ortiz: To my knowledge in my district, we do that. It is not clear that this kind of assistance is rendered to small businesses in other areas. I think that every commissioner has the obligation to get involved. I remember when businesses were coming to the Danube Plaza, I requested that they see me first. Why? Because not only am I going to let them know what kind of grant assistance is available, for example, for impact fees, facade grants, among others, but if it is the case, I will tell them, “That’s not a good business for that area. And if you are going to go ahead, be careful with this.”
I think it is our responsibility to give them guidance, not only for themselves, but for everybody. But, potential small businesses owners must also go to the professionals and seek advice. It’s as much the responsibility of the business person to seek guidance, as it is ours to provide assistance.
WONO: Some people share the view that the City of Orlando is over-extending itself too much with a number of large-scale projects currently ongoing and in the pipe line and this could place a heavier burden on tax payers. Do you share that view?
Tony Ortiz: Well, I think we are doing well. First of all, we balanced our budget and pensions for our police and firefighters are fully funded. Orlando is probably the city with the best rating when it comes to funding pensions. The firefighters pay 7.5 percent and the police pay 8.5 percent. So, we are doing super on that. Our funds are topped up and we have over-exceeded our reserve. I should also point out, we didn’t lay off anybody this year, we balanced the budget, and we didn’t raise taxes.
Remember, the funding for the Venues projects comes from the Tourist Development Tax and the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). It’s not coming from the property taxes, it’s not coming from taxpayers, unless you live downtown, or unless you stay at a hotel around here. If you look at our CRA budget everything is done responsibly, including the funding for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. As you know, we engaged in a campaign to get the funding to complete Phase I. We haven’t done Phase II because we know that we can’t get there yet. So, we have been responsible. The city has received a Triple-A bond rating from Fitch, better than that at the federal government level.
I think, all these projects are helping to create jobs which we need. Orlando is probably one of the very few cities in the whole nation that is creating jobs. Projects like SunRail, which will lead to improved transportation infrastructure and the Creative Village, all support job creation.
With federal government monies and investors’ dollars we can create opportunities and that’s a good thing. But, we must have our communities involved when we make decisions and do so responsibly. The moment we start making decisions without involving our community, I have a problem with that.
WONO: Is the Orlando community involved when decisions are made, particularly on large-scale projects?
Tony Ortiz: Not the whole city, but that is not the mayor’s fault. I see communities where commissioners are very involved and it shows. Then, there are some other communities where they are not as involved and I think that has to do with possibly, the commissioner not taking the initiative to engage the residents. In our community, our people are involved because of this Council we have created and people give us ideas and feedback. They are even developing Vision Plans for their own communities and that’s pretty neat.
I know most of our commissioners are very involved, but if you ask whether the whole city is engaged, no, the entire city is not involved in city government. A lot of this is by choice, a lot of this is because people don’t know that they can engage. So, its our responsibility to involve the citizens.
WONO: There is a major scandal surrounding absentee ballots in District 6. Is this distracting commissioners and affecting the work of the City Council?
Tony Ortiz: It is not affecting me and the Commissioner is a good man. I worked with him in the police department and I know him as a man of integrity. I don’t know all the facts behind the absentee ballot issue, but I would like to see the investigation run its course. It would be irresponsible for me to comment at this stage. I think he has done a good job for the community and is well-liked, not only by African Americans, but by the Anglo and Hispanic cultures. So, I don’t think it is distracting and on personal issues, I’d let him explain to the community.
WONO: Commissioner, it seems to me that the proportion of absentee ballots is high when compared to the size of the districts and voting population. Has it always been this way?
Tony Ortiz: I will tell you why; it’s because people have to work and Orlando does have a lot of seniors. In my own district many of them vote by absentee ballot and I’m fine with that, because I don’t want any of our seniors getting hurt or not being able to vote. I know how serious they are about this and they are so proud when they fill out the ballot and send it in. What I don’t like is for somebody to take advantage of them. That is reprehensible, someone taking advantage of that, there is no forgiveness.
What we do in my district is, make the request to the Supervisor of Elections for an absentee ballot to be mailed out, once it is ascertained that the individual would like to vote in that manner. Then we are finished with the process. The Supervisor of Elections, in turn, will mail out the absentee ballot directly to the voter who returns it by mail, or a relative or neighbor may turn it in. In other words, you can request the absentee ballot, but you shouldn’t have anyone connected to your campaign, in any way, shape, or form collect the ballot. This is how my campaign operates. I don’t want anyone to say, “Hey, he came to grab my absentee ballot, no”. To do otherwise, you would be opening up yourself to charges of corruption and we don’t need that. We need to stay transparent. Those of us involved in the political process need to stay out of it. Stay clean. We do have a law and I think we should be very specific about telling candidates this.
The last thing I would say on this is, where there are seniors who don’t know what to do when the absentee ballot arrives, in that case, they should be calling the Supervisor of Elections Office and having staff assist them in how to fill out the absentee ballot. Politicians or their operatives should not be involved in that process.
WONO: Commissioner, Hispanics are seen as a rising political group in Orlando. Do you think that Orlando is destined to become a Miami North, but in the Puerto Rican sense or in a Cuban sense?
Tony Ortiz: I’ve seen the rise of the Hispanic community. I’d like to see us embrace what we have here. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Let’s all work together.” I don’t want to see separation or separatism. I don’t want to see, something for Hispanics, something different for Anglos, as the case maybe. No, we need to work together as a community.
When we were doing the redistricting, I went to the Neighborhood Council and said, ‘give me as many volunteers you want to be a part of this.’ I ended up with four volunteers and I submitted their names and out of that one person was selected to serve. I didn’t have anything to do with the process. But, it turned out to be a Hispanic person and he did an awesome job.
Our district is 53 percent Hispanic, but my goal more than anything is, to have everyone working together – not just Anglos, not just African Americans, not just Hispanics, but everyone. As a community we are stronger working together to set goals for the community so everyone can prosper together. In the United States of America there are many cultures, but no culture will survive on their own, we all need each other to survive and to continue being the super power that we are.
Having said this, there are some groups which are divided among themselves; they want extra, wider representation. I say, “You know what, we need a leader and a leader doesn’t have a color and a leader doesn’t have a particular culture. A leader is a person that helps everybody and works with everybody and makes sure that the community is taken care of.” I think it is a mistake for us to turn away good people that could do a tremendous job just because that person is not from a particular group.
WONO: Senator Rick Santorum made a statement recently that, if Puerto Ricans want statehood, they should learn to speak English. What is your reaction to that?
Tony Ortiz: Well, I’m pretty sure his ancestors knew English when they first came here! You know what? I think we should all learn English and that shouldn’t prevent us from keeping our language of origin. We use the English language as the universal language to communicate. In part he is right about the fact that we should learn English, but it shouldn’t be a requirement for us to become a state. That is a little ignorant. That is just like saying all the people who live in Hawaii should learn and speak English. I think though, most people there speak English and native speakers of Hawaiian amount to less than 0.1 percent. In other words, they have lost some aspect of their culture and linguists are worried about this.
WONO: Commissioner, sketch for me briefly, should you be reelected, some of your top priorities going forward?
Tony Ortiz: My top priorities will always be our seniors and our kids and that’s my first priority. Safety of people – safety of seniors and kids – immediately come to my mind. In order for us to prosper we need to live in peace and tranquility and in order for us to live in peace and tranquility we must have a police force that’s well trained, with proper equipment and involved with our community. So, I would want to keep crime low in the district.
I intend to make sure that our seniors continue to be well taken care of. And our kids are our future, have always been and always will be. So, I would want to build on those programs that I talked about earlier, including the After School programs. We need to work with our families. The family is not as strong as it used to be and crime is a by-product of that breakdown. We have a college and career program which we will be starting soon, in order to give guidance to our kids. So, I want to make sure that we attend to the needs of our children.
Then of course, we have to do responsible development. We need to continue creating jobs, jobs, jobs. We need to create jobs especially at this time now that the economy is starting to improve. It’s slow, but we have to keep at it and of course, this effort is undermined by rising gas prices, which affect us all.
WONO: It has long been rumored that you are the next Mayor of Orlando because of your good taste, good looks and the access that your constituents have to you. What are your plans for the future and can Orlando look forward to a Mayor Tony Ortiz?
Tony Ortiz: I’m looking forward to being Commissioner of District 2, for the next four years. I respect the mayor we have and I admire him. I will not run against Mayor Dyer as long as he is doing the right thing for the community. If the opportunity rises, and God has to be there first, and the community so wishes for me to represent them, I cannot say no to the community. I love to serve my community, that’s what I have done all my life. If the community thinks I’m the right candidate to represent them, I would more than honorably and responsibly say yes. But I believe in loyalty and honor and I hold true to those values.
But it doesn’t have to be a run for mayor, it could be a position where I am able to help the mayor, or it could be as a senator, representative, or congressman. It could be any of these positions. But, the first thing I put ahead of myself is God, because he has a way of letting you know. Also, at the same time, you have to feel the sense that the community wants this. I’m not going to go against the community just because I’m Tony Ortiz. It doesn’t work like that. I’m very much in tune with the community. I love the community, I love to serve, I love to work with people. I love to sit at the table and communicate, which I think we need so much more of. When the time is right, we will see what God has for us.
WONO: Commissioner, thank you for your time.
Tony Ortiz. Thank you, too.