Interview with Mayor Buddy Dyer – Orlando
Conducted by: West Orlando News
Date: March 2nd 2010
WONO: Mayor Dyer, could you please introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about Buddy Dyer?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Well, I’m a born and raised Central Floridian. I was born in Orlando and grew up in Kissimmee. I turned 50 last year and have lived the majority of my life in Orlando. I’ve been married for a little over 20 years and have two wonderful boys, one in college and one in high school. I graduated from Osceola High School and attended Brown University, where I received a degree in Civil Engineering and was Vice Captain of the rugby team. I worked for four years as a civil engineer and then attended the University of Florida Law School, graduating in 1987. I returned to Orlando, married my law school sweetheart and practiced law for about 16 years. In 1992, I ran for and won a State Senate seat served for 10 years and was a minority Democratic leader for three of those 10 years. I ran for Mayor in 2003 in a special election against seven other candidates to fill the last year of Mayor Hood’s unexpired term and was successful; I’ve been re-elected twice.
WONO: You are the 32nd Mayor of Orlando and have been in that position now for seven years. What has the experience been like?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Well, it was actually seven years last Friday to the day, I was sworn in. It’s been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my entire life. I had the 10 years of service in the State Senate, but there is nothing like being on the ground as the leader of a local government. And in this great time, I think this is one of the golden decades for the City of Orlando, in terms of our growth and transformation. So to be part of that was particularly rewarding.
WONO: A few years ago, you articulated a bold vision to rebuild Downtown Orlando, turning it into a 24-hour cultural and economic hub of Central Florida. How do you assess what has taken place to-date, in realizing that vision?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Well, I think that Central Florida is going to be one of the great national and international regions around the world in the next several decades and to realize that vision, you must have a great world class Downtown. So, that was one of the themes that I campaigned on and put a lot of political capital behind. When I first came into office in 2003, a lot of people would say that Downtown Orlando was blighted, when in fact it was one major block at Church Street and Orange Avenue. But, we have been able to transform that block which was the catalyst for so many other things that are happening in our Downtown. I think anyone that hasn’t been in our Downtown in say the last five years, are genuinely surprised when they come and see what a vibrant Downtown we have.
WONO: The unemployment rate in Central Florida is currently around 11.8% and I believe almost as high in Orlando. What plans does the city have for assisting in bringing down the jobless rate?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Well, it’s a little less in Orlando, but nevertheless significantly higher than we would want it to be. From the very first day that I took office, diversifying our job base has been important and we have made great strides in areas of high-tech and expanding our markets. The two biggest planks of our economy historically, after agriculture, became tourism and home-building. In this recession, both tourism and home-building have been significantly affected and its highlighted the importance of economic diversification, which we’ve been able to do in the medical area, biomedical technology, digital media, modeling, simulation and training. So, that’s a big long-range goal that we have to work on everyday.
Some of the other programs that Orlando specifically has put in place is, the Orlando Main Street Program that focuses on our urban commercial districts, neighborhood business districts. And we have five of those, Ivanhoe Village, Audubon Park, College Park, Downtown South and Mills 50–all created, in the last three years, generating almost 500 jobs, and spawning 82 new businesses. Another new venture, sometimes called the Entrepreneurial Zone or E-Zone in our Downtown, is really designed to connect entrepreneurs and start-up businesses with companies that are already established. For example, an established company might have extra office space that they can rent below market and maybe barter services with each other and then connect up with some of the many programs that the city, county and state offer in our Downtown.
We’ve been supportive of many different incubators, the UCF incubator, both the high-tech which is in Downtown and the business incubator which is in District 2. We’ve used our QTI in which the city provides 25% and the state 75% toward high wage, above median wage jobs.
And then finally, there is our Strength in Orlando program that we launched when we saw the recession coming, which includes big components like Buy Local Orlando, where we encourage people to spend their money with local businesses. We also accelerated a lot of our capital projects in the pipeline to put people to work.
WONO: Still on the question of jobs, Mayor, the Venues Project–Performing Arts, Citrus Bowl and the Amway Center, those were major projects intended to transform Downtown Orlando and I think they were intended to generate thousands of jobs and income for the city and its residents. What’s the status of those projects and how many jobs thus far have been created, particularly by the Amway Center?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Well, the vision for the three community venues was an outgrowth of knowing that we needed a Performing Arts Center, and when we looked around, we saw that the Citrus Bowl was crumbling and the Amway Arena was the oldest arena being used in the NBA. Also, we knew that if we were going to be using the tourist development tax, it had to be a bold vision, with the ability to lift our community to the same heights as other South Eastern communities, such as Charlotte, Atlanta or Nashville, all of which have these amenities for their citizens. So, that was the primary purpose, but the result was all the jobs that were going to be created, particularly during the construction period. A lot of people have compared the Venues program to many FDR public works projects and this certainly was realized with the Amway Center where so many of our residents have been put to work; our BLUEPRINT specifies that there must be a focus on minority participation. And we’re going to continue to focus on the residents of Parramore, ex-offenders and the homeless. What’s interesting is that more than $89 million in contracts on the Amway Center have been awarded to minority and women-owned businesses, representing 35% of total contracts. Most public projects have a goal of 18% minority and 6% women-owned. So, I would guess that if we’re not the highest in minority participation, we’re certainly among those around the country. We will also break ground on the Performing Arts Center later this year and we’re moving ahead with a $10 million interim renovation of the Citrus Bowl. Our progress has been slowed a little bit because of the decline in the tourist development tax, which is a large part of the funding for these projects.
WONO: And any feel for the total number of jobs created thus far?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: In terms of the Performing Arts Center, probably during the course of the project 4,000 jobs will be created. On the Amway Center, to date, more than 1,000 individuals have been placed in jobs.
WONO: The Parramore revitalization project has been ongoing for more than five years. How has that progressed and what tangible results have been realized? Has the quality of life improved for the area residents?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: It has. I would say that is one of our greatest successes. We built a program; we had a task force that made a number of recommendations in different areas–housing, public safety, business development, children and education, quality of life–and we’ve focused in a holistic manner. A lot of people say, “you have to make the neighborhood safe first before you can make it better and others will say, you’ve got to make your neighborhood better before you can make it safe.” So, we took the approach that we have to do it all at once–invest in public safety by targeting initiatives to reduce crime and at the same time, improve the housing stock, increase the number of businesses and do something for children in the community. We’ve done all that.
We’ve made an investment of over $10 million in housing, which is resulting in a little over 300 new planned or rehabilitated homes in Parramore. Regarding public safety, we have deployed cameras throughout Parramore in targeted hot spots and we’ve seen a drastic reduction in violent crime of between 20% to 30%. Concerning business development, I think Commissioner Lynum and I were cutting a ribbon on a new business almost every month. And, perhaps our greatest success has been with the Parramore Kids Zone. There’s about 2,000 children that reside in Parramore and we’ve touched over 90% of them, through some service, whether it’s mentoring, after-school programs, child care, athletic activities, our summer programs, and we have seen –this is an incredible number– an 80% decline in juvenile crime in Parramore. We’ve also seen since the Parramore Kids Zone was established, an increase in FCAT math scores by, on average, 13% and 5% in reading. So, with test scores up and juvenile crime down, that’s success.
WONO: Mayor, last December, the Florida legislature passed framework legislation to allow for statewide rail and $1.2 billion in federal funds were received to support this effort. Now, I know that SunRail is moving closer to becoming a reality, but is there is a funding gap and how will that be closed? What’s the likely impact of SunRail in terms of jobs, income and so forth?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Let’s not confuse the two. SunRail is our commuter rail system that will run from DeLand through all the cities, through Downtown Orlando to Kissimmee and Point Sienna; a 61-mile route commuter rail. Then there will also be high-speed rail that runs initially from Tampa to Orlando with a stop in Lakeland, Disney and I-Drive. SunRail is fully funded. It is 50% federal funding, 25% state funding and 25% local government funding. The State of Florida, Department of Transportation will purchase the tracks, the 61 miles. So that funding is 100% in place. We will move to the full funding agreement later in the fall of this year and should begin construction by the end of the year or early next year. That will create close to 10,000 jobs during the construction phase and the estimates over the course of 20 years are about $20 billion worth of economic activity.
Regarding high-speed rail, the federal government has dedicated already, $1.25 billion for the Tampa to Orlando portion which is estimated to cost $2.5 billion. The Feds have made it extremely clear that the $1.25 billion is a down payment and that they will be coming through, in some fashion, with the balance of funds to do the entire project. So, it’s not a matter of just doing a piece of it from say, Orlando to Disney or something like that. The federal government envisions the entire project. What’s most important about the Tampa to Orlando segment is, we’ve done so much work on high-speed rail over the past decade and we will probably be among the first to use the system in the country.
WONO: A recent report by Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida has said that, hunger is a huge problem in Central Florida, and the food bank has seen 100% increase in meals served since 2006. What’s been done about hunger and poverty?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: We have a process that we go through where we contribute to a number of not-for-profits, Second Harvest Food Bank being one of them. And then we have a commitment to various homeless services, whether it’s the Coalition of the Homeless, Rescue Mission, Christian Service Center or Orlando Salvation Army, we provide funding for each of those entities. They all have feeding programs of one sort or another, either in the Parramore neighborhood or Downtown neighborhood. But, it’s an issue that’s more important than ever, given how many people are currently unemployed and didn’t anticipate being in the position that they are, needing help feeding their family.
WONO: I know that a few years ago, large group feeding in Downtown parks was banned and I think it was in fact challenged in court. What’s the status of this?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: The matter is on appeal and it’s at the Eleventh Circuit; a decision has not been rendered yet. But, understand that we support feeding programs and have all types of services for the homeless and hungry in Downtown Orlando and in Parramore. However, one recommendation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness about six years ago was that, the city needs to regulate the time, place and manner of these services and make sure that they’re being delivered. This one group wasn’t interested in feeding the homeless, as they were in attracting attention to themselves. We offered to make places available for the group to feed the homeless and certainly, all the organizations that I just mentioned are able to do that without causing a safety issue in our premier parks. So, you have to balance the needs of public safety with providing those services.
WONO: The Buy Local Orlando campaign was launched in 2009 to encourage residence visitors to spend their money with local merchants. Could you elaborate on this a little more–how has that gone?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: Buy Local is one of the pieces of our Strengthen Orlando program. We launched it to connect businesses with the buying power of our Orlando community and it’s been extremely successful. Some 75,000 Buy Local Orlando cards have been distributed. There are over 360 businesses that are members, giving special discounts to cardholders and we have every type of business you can think of, restaurants, auto mechanics, orthodontists, roofing services, the Downtown movie theatre and many more.
WONO: The city has put a lot of emphasis on “greening” and I’m aware that several programs support this effort. Recently you test drove the Nissan LEAF and the Get Ready Central Florida coalition was formed. Do you foresee electric cars taking off in Orlando any time soon?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: We really do. One of the reasons I think Nissan picked Orlando as they get ready for the electric car revolution is, we have commenced many green initiatives under our Green Works Orlando Program. We have six LEED-certified fire stations. There is not another city in the country that can boast that they have been able to do that. We got a $2.6 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block grant that we’re using for a number of different things to help our residents become more energy-efficient. One of them is the Nissan partnership that you mentioned and Get Ready Central Florida. And the objective is to create an infrastructure in Orlando that, when electric cars become mass produced, if our residents choose to drive electric cars, they wouldn’t be stranded somewhere. In other words, they would be able to power up somewhere in one of our garages or alternatively, we envision that retailers may put power-up stations near their locations, so that somebody could come out and power up while the driver shops in their store.
WONO: In your State of the City Address, you indicated that the city would be partnering with Disney to get the Lake Eola fountain going on an interim basis and that there were plans for restoring the fountain on a longer-term basis. Some critics have said that utilizing scarce funds to restore the fountain shouldn’t be a priority. How do you respond to such criticism?
Mayor Buddy Dyer: The fountain is our iconic symbol of the City of Orlando and was constructed in the 1950s. I would argue with any critic that, it’s important for civic and community pride to re-establish the fountain with its iconic look. Disney is helping us do that on an interim basis. We would like to have it up and running during the summer time when people are out enjoying the park and especially when we have thousands of people for the fireworks at the fountain on July 4th. A couple weeks ago, we did put out a RFP for the permanent solution to the fountain. One of the things people like to say is that, the city ought to operate like a business, but we have certain procurement rules that we have to follow. Sometimes, when your city government follows those rules, you can’t do things quite as quickly as a business where you could simply issue a purchase order and go out and fix it.
WONO: States, counties, cities are all operating under budgetary constraints and Orlando is no exception. Do you anticipate that cuts would have to be made in order to balance the 2010/2011 fiscal budget?
Mayor Dyer: I do anticipate that cuts of some sort will need to be made. We have not determined exactly what they will be. We do know that revenues will be less than the previous year. And our fixed cost moving forward, like cost of healthcare, pensions, fuel, those types of expenditures will be higher next year than they were this year. So, that leaves us with a deficit and we’re going to have to figure out how to close that gap.
WONO: Final question, Mayor Dyer. You served in the Senate in Tallahassee for 10 years and have been CEO of the City of Orlando for seven. What’s next for Mayor Buddy Dyer?
Mayor Dyer: Well, being the Mayor of Orlando has been the most rewarding job that I’ve ever had, so I could certainly do that for a while longer. And I have a lot of initiatives that we’ve put in place that I need to make sure actually happen, like building a performing arts center, finishing the Citrus Bowl, making sure that Parramore gets to where we want it to be; the Downtown revitalization program; making sure the commuter rail actually happens; and that the medical city continues to prosper. So, there is a lot of work still to be done in Orlando and I’m very happy being the Mayor.
WONO: Do you have any aspirations to seek high office?
Mayor Dyer: Well, you never say never. So we’ll just have to evaluate that if an opportunity comes along.
WONO: Thank you, Mayor Dyer.
Mayor Dyer: Thank you, too.
More About Buddy Dyer:
Buddy Dyer is the 32nd Mayor of the City of Orlando. He has been Mayor since 2003 when he was elected in a special election to complete the last year of an existing term.
In 2004, the citizens of Orlando re-elected him to his first, full four-year term. In January 2008, Orlando residents overwhelmingly re-elected him for a second full term.
Upon taking office, Mayor Dyer outlined a bold list of initiatives to accomplish during his tenure in office: solve the City’s budget crisis; revitalize downtown with jobs, entertainment and cultural opportunities; restore the Parramore Heritage Community to its original vibrancy; create top-rated educational facilities; enhance neighborhood amenities such as parks and community centers; and diversify the economy/create a living wage for families.
Mayor Dyer’s vision for Orlando as a world-class city is fast becoming a reality. During his time in office he has:
• Orchestrated one of the most remarkable resurgences of a downtown anywhere in the country with nearly $3 billion dollars worth of development either underway or planned from residential to commercial and retail.
• Strengthened commitment to public safety by putting 75 additional police officers on the street, adding 45 new fire personnel, building two new police substations and three new fire stations.
• Invested resources to ensure neighborhood improvement projects including: Parramore Heritage Park and Pond, Dover Shores Community Center, Dubsdread Sewer Improvements, Lake Eola Park renovation and Primrose Building Improvements.
• Served as only municipality to fund Commuter Rail effort increasing multi-modal transit option for the entire Central Florida region.
• Approved the vision and plan to develop world-class regional Community Venues including a performing arts center, an events center and renovated Citrus Bowl.
• Continued “Pathways for Parramore” initiative to bring new homes on line, transform Church Street into a major east/west thoroughfare and expand the “Parramore Kidz Zone” to provide after school activities, access to health care and social services to children and families.
• Developed unprecedented public/private partnership to lay the foundation for a Medical City at Lake Nona. The Burnham Institute and UCF Medical School will serve as anchors to this biomedical and health sciences cluster, along with Nemours proposed children’s health care campus and the VA Hospital.
• Recruited House of Moves, the world’s largest motion capture service bureau, to co-locate an east coast operation in the Downtown Orlando Creative Village at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. Also secured commitment from Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund to bring a $70 million investment to the Parramore Heritage neighborhood, providing opportunities for affordable housing, new jobs and retail development.
• Launched a pre-kindergarten initiative and doubled the number of high quality pre-kindergarten classrooms in the city.
• Opened the downtown campuses of the Florida A&M College of Law, UCF’s School of Film and Digital Media and championed getting a medical school for UCF in east Orlando.
• Balanced the budget and placed public safety as a top priority, making up a $23 million budget shortfall in Mayor Dyer’s first thirty days in office and has continued to do so each year thereafter.
A successful attorney in private practice, Mayor Dyer was first elected to public office in 1992. He served Orlando in the Florida Senate for ten years, being reelected twice. During that time, his colleagues, recognizing his outstanding leadership skills, elected him as their Senate Democratic Leader, a position he held for three years.
Prior to his public service, Mayor Dyer worked as an environmental engineer and practiced law. He earned a B.S. degree in Civil Engineering from Brown University and his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Florida College of Law, where he was Editor-In-Chief of the University of Florida Law Review and a member of Florida Blue Key. He graduated with honors and received the highest score on the Florida Bar Exam that year.
Mayor Dyer was born in Orlando and raised in nearby Kissimmee. He and his wife Karen, an attorney, have two sons, Trey and Drew.
Contact: Mayor Buddy Dyer
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