Interview with Buddy Dyer, Mayor of Orlando
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: February 22, 2011
WONO: Cities, states and the whole country have just gone through a difficult year in 2010. From your vantage point, how did Orlando do and what are your expectations for 2011 in terms of growth and job creation?
Buddy Dyer: I am more optimistic about this year than the last two and I think 2012 will be a better year than 2011. Regarding our budget, we have had less revenue every year for the last few years, and I think that will occur again, so we are going to need to manage and balance our budget.
From a tourism standpoint, which is one of our big industries, we are going to see an uptick in 2011 and officials are anticipating a very good year in 2012.
In terms of other industry growth we have done a little better than some other communities because of our focus on clustering. For example, the Medical City at Lake Nona–UCF Medical School, the Sandford-Burnham Institute, along with the Nemours Children’s Hospital and Orlando VA Medical Center, the latter two which are due to open in 2012– is contributing to our growth and will continue to do so. It’s pretty exciting. Also, we have just completed, in October, the construction of the Amway Center and that was an important economic boost to our community during the recession. One of the aspects of that construction is something we call the Blue Print, which is focused on making sure that there was extensive MWBE (Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises) and local participation. We are very proud that almost $100 million worth of contracts were awarded to MWBEs; so over 30 percent of the construction was accomplished by MWBEs.
WONO: The Performing Arts Center has been in the news recently and my understanding is that there exist a funding gap of a little less than $30 million. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs released a memo and supporting documents, quite scathing in terms of the assessment of the pre-project preparation. Can you comment on where things stand?
Buddy Dyer: We are working jointly again with the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) and the County on determining a mechanism for moving the project forward. We are going to make sure that this project is accomplished in a fiscally responsible manner. So, we are looking at reducing the scope a little bit, some value engineering, and project savings to bring it within budget. What I have always said is, “We won’t begin the project unless we have the money to complete it.” But I think that we are going to get there.
WONO: What’s the time-line for start-up?
Buddy Dyer: This spring. We will have an announcement this week with regard to how we anticipate accomplishing the construction.
(On February 24, 2011, the City of Orlando, Orange County and DPAC announced a new non-profit entity to oversee the construction of the project.)
WONO: SunRail, which is fully funded, should begin construction in the spring. I know that Gov. Rick Scott is reviewing all contracts over $1 million and SunRail is in that mix. I am also aware that some are those working to defeat that project. What’s the status of SunRail and are you optimistic the project will go forward?
Buddy Dyer: It is, in large part, in the governor’s hands. He is the third governor in terms of SunRail. Gov. Jeb Bush actually started the project and Gov. Charlie Crist helped us move it forward. All of the financing is in place–100 percent–and we are simply waiting for Gov. Scott to release the contracts and at that point, they will issue a full-funding grant agreement for the State of Florida for the federal participation. Really, there is nothing left to do, except get the head nod from the governor to move forward. Every other impediment has been removed, all the funding is there. It’s wonderfully supported by our community. As a region we made SunRail our transportation priority. So, I am hoping that the governor will not try to circumvent the will of the people of Central Florida who have made rail transportation a priority.
WONO: As of today, is the project behind schedule in terms of start-up?
Buddy Dyer: Well, regarding its original schedule it ought to be operating right now. We’ve had delays moving it through the Legislature on three different occasions, and then everything took a little longer than we anticipated. But we had actually hoped to have it up and running before we opened the doors of the Amway Center. If the governor were today to release the contracts from the Office of Accountability, we could break ground in the spring.
WONO: Gov. Scott rejected the funding for high speed rail, claiming that taxpayers would be on the hook. I know you are working with other local government elected officials on an alternate plan to move forward with high speed rail. Can you tell us where things stand?
Buddy Dyer: We are hopeful that the governor, given all the information, will reconsider his position. We have been working with the United States Department of Transportation as well as our partners throughout the I-4 corridor to facilitate a different entity to actually accomplish the contracting and completion of the rail system. What we know for sure is that the federal government is willing to award us $2.4 billion dollars, of a project estimated to cost of $2.6 billion dollars. We know that we can fashion a Request For Qualification, or a Request For Proposal, that will put the risk of construction and construction overruns on the contractor. We could put the risk of operation on the contractor. The $2.4 billion cannot be re-allocated to any other transportation project in the State of Florida. If we don’t do this project the money will simply go to California, or some other part of our country. The final piece of it is, the United States Department of Transportation has said, “If you go forward with this project and it is not successful, we will not ask for any money back.” So, it is a totally 100 percent risk free investment for the State of Florida. We also know that this has long been a vision for the State of Florida. We have probably worked for 20 years toward high-speed rail for the State of Florida. So, it is not something that the federal government has thrust on us. It is something that we have been working on for a long time and the stars aligned and we happen to be the state that already acquired the right-of-way, and we have the environmental permitting necessary. So, we are in a position to be the first in the country for true high speed rail. It would be a major setback if we are not able to go forward.
WONO: Gov. Scott is insisting that taxpayers would be on the hook if the project fails. Mayor, are you saying that is not the case?
Buddy Dyer: That is absolutely not the case. The US Department of Transportation has fashioned the grant in such a way that it is risk-free for the taxpayers of Florida.
WONO: If the project didn’t go forward, can you project what it will mean for Florida over the medium to long term?
Buddy Dyer: It means that we would not move forward with the rest of the world in developing alternative modes of transportation. It would mean we won’t reduce our reliance on foreign oil. It means we won’t produce tens of thousands of jobs. It would mean we won’t change our growth patterns–we would simply continue relying on cars and widening roadways. We won’t be giving alternatives to our citizens. We won’t change growth patterns in terms of creating transit-oriented development along densely populated rail lines. It means we’ll get more sprawl, more environmental damage and we won’t have the economic impact.
(On March 1, 2011, two Central Florida senators filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to block Gov. Rick Scott from dashing plans for the high speed rail project by rejecting the $2.4 billion.)
WONO: The development of Amway Center was a major achievement–a world class facility. Are you satisfied that Orlando is now competing successfully for games, events etc. with the new facility? The Center’s first quarter financials show a net income of $34,000. Are you satisfied that the facility will be able to pay for itself?
Buddy Dyer: I am extremely satisfied. It is the best building of its sort in the entire world. The NBA commissioner was here for the opening of the Magic season and said unequivocally, “I’ve been in every building in the country, Europe and China, it is the best in class in so many ways”. I could tell you, from the technology, to the sustainability; it’s going to end up being a Gold Certified Leed building, to the fan amenities in the building, to the pride in our community. Again, it was important in terms of creating employment during a time when we needed construction jobs. It has so revitalized Church Street and the south part of town during event nights. Talk to any restaurant owner—they have experienced record sales over the last few months during event nights. It’s going to spur additional redevelopment of the Parramore neighborhood in the south end, ultimately. Its impact has already been felt, but it will be felt for decades to come.
WONO: So, no major concerns in terms of the financials.
Buddy Dyer: No. It is performing exactly as we thought. There were record sales in a lot of games that surpassed playoff games. Next year, we will get the NBA All-stars game, assuming there is not a work stoppage. The estimate for that would be an economic impact of between $80 to $100 million on the community.
WONO: So that is good news, because one of your commissioner’s who is not supportive, commented recently on the limited first quarter net income, indicating that this is what he anticipated.
Buddy Dyer: Well, the quarter subsequent to the first will be much different because you are getting up and running and there are a lot of additional expenses incurred with the actual opening and commissioning of the building.
WONO: District 5 residents feel abandoned by the City with the loss of access to parking revenues, since the construction of the Amway Center. What’s your message to these people who feel betrayed by losing this revenue?
Buddy Dyer: In terms of moving the building from the north part of Parramore to the south, we made arrangements for entities within the vicinity of the Amway Center to do what we call “informal parking” arrangements. Some of the churches, for instance, that have paved parking around there, we have made appropriate accommodations to allow non-city parking to occur. We have been extremely mindful of vendors and merchants that suffered through the construction and we helped them with their rent through the course of that and they are all realizing a boost in sales. Some have actually changed their type of business to take advantage of being near to the Amway Center. Lastly, if you think about the overall impact on Parramore; we are in the fifth year of Pathways for Parramore, which has many components. We have witnessed a reduction in crime and this is having a positive impact for the Parramore kids. We have done many facade grants, for instance, or Ameba (15:35 sp) Grants to businesses in Parramore. For a while, it seemed like every couple of weeks we were doing a ribbon cutting on a new business or a new home.
WONO: The City Council just voted in favor of the Creative Village. What are the next steps? What does this mean for small, local businesses and why does the development span 10 years?
Buddy Dyer: Well, the Creative Village is a really exciting opportunity for the City of Orlando. It’s location is the old Amway Arena and 60 acres around, including the area where the Bob Carr is, the old Expo center that is now the UCF School of Emerging Media, the Armory and the parking associated with all of those facilities.
Five years ago we started the process of envisioning what that area would be when we built a new Amway Center, at a different location. It’s all about clustering and developing industry clusters and one of those clusters that we want to develop is digital media. So, we started the cluster there with Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, which is a graduate program for gamers, not poker players but video programmers. That was at the urging of Entertainment Academy, which needed a pipeline for their workforce and was extremely successful; people making high wages right out of school. We then added the House of News, which is the most sophisticated Motion Capture Studio east of the Mississippi River and City Lab, which is an architectural program from the University of Florida. They expanded to the School of Emerging Media, which houses a number of disciplines from the UCF. So we are developing a creative academic platform, which is the foundation for the growth of this area and we want to develop it into a bohemian type of village–a live, work, play and learn environment for digital media-based companies and academic facilities. Currently, we are in discussion with Valencia Community College about locating a program and building there and we want to add to the academic side of things, because that attracts the companies when you have a skilled and trained workforce.
The first step we took was to find a development partner, Creative Village LLC, made up of Bank of America’s development arm as well as Craig Ustler and several members from our local development team, to add a local flavor to what we are doing. They are going after grants for infrastructure and we were very fortunate in that, we applied for a Tiger Two Grant–there were $1,400 applications—and we were one of the very few that landed money; we got a $10 million grant right out of the box to start the development.
The project will be developed in phases. This is not something that we are going to do overnight. But we anticipate that when completed–the value of the property over there right now, which is in public hands and generates no property taxes–we can have an area of our town that has $1 billion in property values generating $10 million in property taxes.
WONO: What’s the timeframe?
Buddy Dyer: It will take time, as it will be done in different stages. It was planned so that we can do it that way.
WONO: What plans does the city have for restoring its portion of I-Drive to its former glory to once again make it into a great tourist destination?
Buddy Dyer: One of the issues is that, part of I-Drive is in the County and part is in the City. The part that was more recently developed, the newer area, is more in the County where the Convention Center is. So they had the advantage of higher quality development. One of the biggest aspect for I-Drive is traffic congestion. So, we are focused on an additional route over I-4 and Grand National Drive is an important component that is being worked on.
From the City’s perspective, it is making sure it is safe and perceived as safe. We have recently opened a new Police Substation down in the area which is welcomed and we are working with the community, which has been extremely supportive with our community venues initiatives. So, we have great working relationships.
WONO: Mayor, concerning safety and you just touched on this. There was a recent report on US News naming Orlando the 3rd most dangerous city. What’s your reaction to that? Do you see this affecting visitors planning to come to Orlando?
Buddy Dyer: Pretty bogus. We’ve had double-digit decreases in crime for the last several years. We’ve had historical reductions in crime over the last few years, so I don’t know what facts and figures they used. If you think back to 2006, we have had dramatic decreases in crime since then. Think about Parramore, which was thought of our most dangerous neighborhood, we’ve had one homicide there in three years. Juvenile crime is down 80 percent in Parramore. So, I don’t know the basis for this claim. Of course, I am concerned about the perception of Orlando, but the perception is not the reality. But, we don’t want that perception to exist, nonetheless. I believe that any visitor who comes here feels safe.
WONO: What are your top priorities for 2011?
Buddy Dyer: In 2011, breaking ground on the Performing Arts Center, balancing our budget, maintaining our core city services at the highest level possible, which includes our fire and police departments and picking up garbage, for that matter. Then, our two rail projects, we will see where they go. This could be the week when we know where we are headed. Good or bad.
WONO: The state budget is outside your purview. But, what advice would you offer to Gov. Scott as he goes through the budget process, particular with regard to his proposed cuts to education?
Buddy Dyer: His focus is job creation and if your focus is job creation he has to invest in the infrastructure that helps to provide that type of environment where you can create jobs. Whether it is growing companies that are already here, whether it is fostering entrepreneurship among our very creative citizens around Orlando and the State of Florida. The governor can’t shortchange things like education that you need for investment. You cannot simply say, “the sun shines here and we have low taxes.” That thinking attracts people who want to retire, not people who want high-wage, high quality jobs.
WONO: You have been the Mayor of Orlando now for eight years, re-elected twice, and recently announced you will seek re-election in January 2012. What’s your vision and what will we see differently?
Buddy Dyer: Well, I really think that our community has achieved the success it has because of the partnerships and collaboration, working across jurisdictional boundaries, working across boundaries in terms of business versus government, versus non-profit, versus academics. So, I don’t think I will change the equation that we used to achieve success because, we are willing to share the credit, or share the blame if needs be. We are in this together and we need to work cooperatively as a region and understand that we are not competing; it’s not Seminole versus Orange versus Osceola, or even Orlando versus Tampa. We are competing as a region against Singapore, Madrid and Stockholm. So, I will continue along that track.
WONO: What’s the most difficult thing about doing this job?
Buddy Dyer: You know, I think I enjoy the challenges everyday, whether they are good or bad. Whether good or bad they are certainly important. It’s also important to balance your family life with your political life. And then maybe sometimes, the hardest thing is reading the newspaper.
WONO: How has the job as Mayor changed Buddy Dyer?
Buddy Dyer: Oh, nobody has ever asked me that one. I have to think about that– that’s a good one. It has challenged me in ways that nobody has, so I think it has caused me to elevate my game, to use a sports term. You certainly know that every day you are under a microscope. I don’t know that this has necessarily changed me, but you have to reflect on whatever you do. You should not make a decision based on what is good for you, but you need to make a decision on what is good for your community.
WONO: Thank you, Mayor.
Buddy Dyer: Thank you, too.