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Roundup 2-8-2013

February 8, 2013

Bass Pro Shops –  More Reason to Say No

This week, the Hillsborough County Commission held the first of two public hearings before it votes on the Bass Pro Shops proposal (or not) on February 20:

Nearly a dozen Hillsborough County residents implored county commissioners today to say no to $6 million in public subsidies to bring national sporting goods giant Bass Pro Shops here.

Many of the speakers were small business owners who said it was unfair to subsidize road improvements for a gigantic retail complex anchored by Bass, a company that would compete with their businesses. The complex is proposed for a site between Interstate 75 and Falkenburg Road in the Brandon area.

“When we opened our new building, we paid all the development and building expenses,” said Thomas Mahoney, owner of T.A. Mahoney, a marine hardware and boating services store. “All I ask is that Bass Pro and their development be treated the same way.”

A fair point.  And it went on like this.

Wearing stickers that read “Say No to Bass Pro,” speakers called the idea a “shell game,” “corporate welfare” and an unfair giveaway that will put small-business owners under.

“It worries me to see our tax funds being used to bring in big national corporations, ones that also are offering at best minimum-wage jobs with no benefits,” said resident Whelan Blannie.

As regular readers know, we are opposed to this proposed deal, but we would be happy to have a Bass Pro Shops in the area. Well:

Later Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he is aware that officials with Bass Pro had dinner Tuesday night with a developer representative in Pasco County. He said he knows the company has looked at locations in Pasco, including the Shops of Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, and believes a store could end up there if things fall through in Hillsborough.

“I am confident that Bass Pro will build in our region,” Hagan said. “But should Hillsborough not work out, they have absolutely no problem going 10 miles up the road.”

Great. We get a Bass Pro Shop with all the jobs (10 miles makes no difference), and Hillsborough does not waste taxpayer money.  Hillsborough can focus on investing its money on recruiting high paying jobs and upgrading roads that actually need it. (Of course, we oppose Pasco spending its money on subsidizing retail, too.)

Despite the developer hiring big hitters to lobby for its subsidy deal (A Tribune article called it “cost sharing” but if the taxpayers cover road costs that the developer is supposed to pay, that is a subsidy, not sharing), everything said makes it clear that the deal is unnecessary.

(To update the lack of uniqueness of the proposed store, Bass Pro announced in January that they are going to build a store in Palm Bay, which is in addition new stores announced near Jacksonville and in Tallahassee. Bass Pro Shops is flooding Florida.  Just another reason not to subsidize this development.)

Just say no.

HART/PSTA – What Is Really at Stake

We have written extensively about the study of whether HART and PSTA can function together more efficiently together or be merged.  We have been rightly critical of HART’s board for blocking further study of the issue and its race to the past.  Now, we have more reason to be critical.

“This is about service, but more importantly it’s about money,” said Deighton. “But it’s not about the potential $2.4 million savings in personnel from the merger.”

* * *

“About three months ago, we had a presentation when the Deputy Secretary of Transportation (John Porcari) flew down from Washington and he told us outright that Washington is not interested in financing anything except regional proposals. Pinellas is not regional,” Deighton said. “So this means if we can get together with Hillsborough, they can get their light rail project on the tracks and they can figure out how to finance their part of it, then we can send something up to Washington and have a much better chance of approval.”

Deighton said the combined effort would carry a price tag of about $4 billion and the federal government would pick up about half, or $2 billion.

“That’s the big carrot on the stick and the reason we’re curious about consolidation,” Deighton said.

The project time frame would be eight to 10 years.

That is quite substantial and potentially transformative.

But even if it just involved the original numbers, the HART/PSTA issue is important not just because it shows the problems this area has working regionally.  It is also important because it is a threshold issue for the future of transportation in our region.  It is about whether the region can work cooperatively for the interests of all the taxpayers of the region rather than bicker to protect the interests of a small clique.  It involves the future of our quality of life, the brain drain, and, ultimately, our economic competitiveness for decades.  It is about jobs – construction and other jobs attracted by having a modern transportation system – or lost because we don’t have one. It is about whether we will spend decades more falling behind our competitors.

And where is the Hillsborough County Commission?  Why is it spending all this time on a bad Bass Pro Shops deal and neglecting the entire region’s economic future?

(Hey, Connect Tampa Bay, this is even more of an issue for you now.)

Rays – Playing in the Little Leagues

This week the St. Pete City Council took a good chance to help move the Rays issue forward and decided instead to throw it away, leaving us exactly where we were before.

A crack has opened in St. Petersburg’s long-standing refusal to let the Tampa Bay Rays explore possible stadium sites in Hillsborough County.

City Council member Charlie Gerdes placed a proposal on Thursday’s council agenda that would give the team three years to investigate new stadium sites in either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties in exchange for an annual fee of about $1.42 million.

Because it is such a self-evidently good idea, we will not even get into the positives of the proposal. It totally makes sense.  At last, someone in St. Pete government actually working to solve the issue rather than just obstruct everything. Of course, because it was reasonable, it went nowhere.

A proposal to let the Tampa Bay Rays examine stadium sites in Hillsborough County went nowhere Thursday. St. Petersburg City Council members even rejected a motion to have their attorney evaluate the proposal’s legal implications.

That’s right. St. Pete City Council will not even ask its own lawyer review the proposal, though he said he would review it anyway. Is there any doubt what he will find?

The upside of this episode is that at least some people are being reasonable.  As the Councilman who proposed the original idea rightly pointed out:

“The position we are taking that allowing them to look (in Hillsborough) means they are leaving is totally contrary to the belief we all have that St. Petersburg is a great place,” Gerdes said. “I don’t think we should be playing defense. We should be playing offense. We should be beating our chest and saying St. Petersburg is a great place to play.”

Exactly, but such positive thinking does not go far in this issue:

But other council members spoke against the idea and City Attorney John Wolfe warned that the proposed amendment could weaken the city’s legal position if the Rays unilaterally broke the Trop contract.

Which begs the question why St. Pete is not working with the Rays to have whatever happens be bilateral.  That is the whole point of this week’s proposal – to not have things be unilateral.

And the whole legal position weak because, as pointed out in another Times article:

Foster has little room to maneuver, and the Rays are holding the best cards in the standoff, said Jim Cusack, a lawyer and investor in a group that wanted to bring baseball to Tampa in the 1980s.

“The mayor is bluffing,” Cusack said. “He said they have a lease. But the deep dark secret in any of these baseball deals is if the team is losing money and files bankruptcy, the judge will drop the gavel and the lease disappears. In a bankruptcy proceeding, a lease is a liability.”

In other words, the lease is not the ace card.  And as we and others have pointed out, every day the City gets weaker and the Rays get stronger. But, this is not a rational process:

Thursday, Foster was still ruling out any kind of buyout, saying the city would lose jobs and face.

“Right now, that’s not the direction we’re going in,” Foster said. “Try to get businesses to come to St. Petersburg with a reputation that you couldn’t hold your Major League Baseball team.”

Right, because the horrible attendance (as everyone can see on tv) and national criticism year in and year out regarding it really helps St. Pete’s reputation.  And even better, the Rays filing for bankruptcy or being contracted out of existence will make St. Pete’s reputation even better.  And redeveloping the Trop land would lose jobs?

But, at least, the Mayor has once again confirmed the real reason for his obstruction – not fiduciary duty to St. Pete taxpayers – “losing face,” otherwise known as pride (and insecurity) and his personal rivalry with Tampa.

Economic Development – We Were Supposed to Market the Area?

This week the Tribune reported goings on at the Tampa Bay Partnership.

A problem dogging tourism and economic development leaders for years is how to brand and market the Tampa Bay area.

It lacks Miami’s swagger and Orlando’s world-famous attractions, but most agree it’s a wonderful place to live.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that a key business group charged with marketing the region to the world is taking stock of its own identity and purpose.

The Tampa Bay Partnership sent a notice to its members and the media last week announcing that it has moved employees into several new positions and has decided to sharpen its focus to three key issues for the year: marketing the region, baseball and transit.

Setting aside the question of what the Tampa Bay Partnership has been doing these last few years and how it was marketing the region when it did not identify what it was marketing, this is good news.  Especially because:

In fact, the portion of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s income devoted to marketing the region has dwindled. In recent years, just 8 percent to 15 percent of its revenue has gone toward marketing the region.

That’s about to change.

* * *

The partnership has identified four industries that hold the most promise for the Bay area: applied medicine and human performance; business, financial and data services; high-tech electronics and instruments; and marine and environmental activities.

That’s good, too.  Though we think there should be more diversity in the sought after industries.

We are happy when an organization actually focuses on what it is supposed to do, but the issue at the beginning of the article remains – how are they going to market Tampa Bay and what is the brand?

Economic Development – The Price of Past Failure

The Tribune ran an article this week about the salaries of some, and we mean some, leaders of local agencies/authorities. The main thrust:

The Tampa Port Authority hired a new port director in December for $350,000 a year — $81,500 more than his predecessor — with one board member explaining “a few extra dollars isn’t a lot to get the right guy.”

The year before, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board gave the airport chief executive a 20 percent raise to $300,000 after 12 months on the job, with the three gubernatorial appointees overriding dissent by the two elected officials on the board.

The salaries of high-level executives of quasigovernmental agencies draw headlines. But a survey of management of the area’s transportation agencies shows the top leaders aren’t the only ones drawing top-level pay.

Dozens of lower-level positions in those agencies offer six-figure annual salaries. Big raises and $100,000-plus salaries stand out in an area where the median family income of $55,136 in 2011 was nearly 13 percent lower than in 2007.

The first thing we will point out is that the article only discusses the airport, the port, HART and PSTA.  There is no mention of the Sport Authority, U.S.F., the Tampa Bay Partnership, etc.  Why?  We are not told.

The second thing we will point out is that, at least at the TIA and the Port, the new guys replaced long time directors who grew complacent and failed to drive the major economic engines of which they were in charge, leaving the area falling further and further behind competitors.  In order to catch up, the area needs talent to catch up.  In order to draw talented people, you often need to offer them something more than they already have.  These salaries are investments.  If the investments fail to create an adequate return over time, they should be changed.  If they do create a good return, wonderful.

One thing of note regarding the airport, the article admits:

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which oversees Tampa International Airport and three general aviation airports, pays 40 of its 544 current employees more than $100,000. That’s one less than five years ago, and the payroll for those employees has declined from $5.4 million to $5.28 million.

So the payroll cost of the highest paid employees has decreased under the new Director.  That seems a positive.

This article is oddly silent on what it is trying to say.  If the point of the article is that people paid high salaries in public positions need to produce, we agree.  People should be held accountable, but not just in a few agencies/entities.  It holds true for all of them.  However, it needs to be understood that, due to the failures of previous leaderships, the port, airport, and the whole area need to catch up.  We can no longer afford to do everything on the cheap.  In the modern economy, complacency is failure.

TIA – Traffic is Up

The Tribune also told us that traffic at both TIA and St. Pete/Clearwater International is up.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International’s overall ridership increased to 866,000 in 2012, a 4 percent jump from the year before.

Tampa International reported a 0.9 percent gain in 2012 passengers to 16.8 million. The slight increase was in contrast with Orlando, Fort Myers, Sarasota-Bradenton and Jacksonville airports, which posted annual declines.

* * *

Tampa gained 18.4 percent international passengers last year to 504,790. Its ridership was bolstered by a new weekly flight to Switzerland, 10 percent and 20 percent gains respectively for Air Canada and British Airways flights, and new Cuba charter service that in 16 months has carried almost 53,000 passengers.

That is all positive.  Not necessarily where we want it, but positive.

Then, in the same article, without explanation, we are given statistics for Orlando International Airport.

Orlando, which had an overall 0.4 percent decline to 35.8 million passengers, served a record 3.7 million international passengers in 2012, an 8.1 percent gain.

Orlando International last year recruited daily nonstop service to Rio de Janeiro and daily direct flights to Sao Paulo, Brazil, through the Dominican Republic lines. Bogota, Colombia, service increased from four to seven flights a week.

We do not know about the passenger stats, but it should be pointed out that Orlando’s Rio flight is ending, and the Sao Paulo-Santo Domingo flight is being scaled back.   Of course, that is the fickleness of the airline industry.

The unexplained Orlando stats do help illustrate the results of the fact that while the previous TIA director refused to use incentives and constantly complained about the mouse rather than trying to leverage it, Orlando was using incentives and marketing the mouse to develop their international service. We are paying for this ill-advised policy today.

Also harming our efforts are the Tampa Bay area’s stubborn local rivalries and fact that many local officials are more concerned about protecting their bureaucratic territory than serving the public and helping the area.  It is no surprise that the present TIA Director keeps lamenting:

“I got a non-stop flight to Zurich,” Lapano [sic] said. “But I can’t get a non-stop bus to Tampa.”

Exactly. (Of course, it involves HART so good luck.)  And how about a bus to Disney, which is only about an hour up I-4, and to other major points around the area like Sarasota/Bradenton?

While some have been trying to unite and work for the region, there is still far too many trapped in the old ways of complacency and bickering.  As long as it continues, we will move forward slowly or not at all, while others leave us behind. (see item on Tampa Bay Partnership, above)  Maybe that was the point of putting the Orlando stats.

Downtown Tampa – Enter the Straz

A week after the Times featured an article in which Friends of the Library raised concerns about the proposed apartment building behind the library- particularly parking and the future of the library – the Times had some comments from the person after whom the Straz is named.

Well, for starters, there’s David A. Straz Jr.

On Friday, the prominent Tampa businessman, philanthropist and patron of the arts said he had questions about:

• The project’s impact on parking. “Quite a bold project to put in the middle of an arts district that is already suffering from parking problems,” Straz said.

• The plan for the tower’s 350 units to be rental apartments rather than condominiums, which Straz said “would be more in keeping with that arts district.” The issue, he said, is not who would live there, but that housing built for sale tends to be higher-quality construction than rental property.

• The degree to which neighbors such as the Straz Center itself, the John F. Germany Public Library, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum will be involved in the conversation about plans for the high-rise.

“I really haven’t seen the mock-up and the proposal other than in a very preliminary way, but I do think if changes are going to be made or things are going to be done in the arts area, then No. 1 it ought to be something that’s really good for the city, and No. 2, that all the stakeholders ought to be involved in it,” he said.

Let’s start with the second item – build quality.  While we do not think that apartments are not necessarily of lesser quality that condominiums, we agree with the point that the project should have high quality design and materials.  Too often, projects in the Tampa Bay area are of lesser quality than projects in other areas.

As for the third item – communication: we agree that stakeholders should be involved in the conversation.  Whether they have a veto on anything is not the issue.  The issue is that RFP’s and proposals of this sort – which are to stitch together an area and involve the sale of public land – should be more transparent.  We do not mean that every negotiating discussion needs to be a public hearing, but it might help smooth the way if the process was less opaque.

As for parking – while we do not think the apartment project will really hurt the parking situation in that area, we do agree that parking is an issue.  That’s why we were happy to see the Times report:

The Straz Center itself is thinking about building a 600-car parking garage on what is now a parking lot between the center and the Tampa Bay Times office building on Ashley Drive.

The project could cost an estimated $10 million to $12 million. A feasibility study is expected to be done in the next month. The center’s finance team also is looking at ways to pay for the project, though the effort may not get that far.

* * *

Parking is an acute, long-term problem, Lisi said, and the Straz has to address it whether or not the apartment tower is built.

“The garage is really separate from the tower,” she said. “We are struggling. … On show nights, it is terrible here.”

We just have to wait and see about the feasibility.  It would be good to have a parking garage for the Straz (with some retail on the bottom floor street front).  That would free up the Poe garage to be for the museums and park.  Hopefully, it can be worked out financially.

All these issues can be worked out and most of them are not directly related to the apartment building.  However, the building is bringing them into focus.  They should be addressed, and the best way to do that is through good communication.

Florida Poly – Just Because You Broke It Off, Doesn’t Mean Everyone Has To Buy It

Last year, a state senator from Polk County pushed to cut USF Poly off of USF to create Florida Poly.  This week, we learned that Florida Poly is needs more money.

Florida Polytechnic University will ask state legislators for $25 million to help build its first building.

The school’s board of trustees voted on Tuesday night at a meeting in Orlando to proceed with the request. Florida Poly was created by the state legislature last year and will not be accredited until December 2016 at the earliest, board members said.

The school has $100 million budgeted for the building, but that amount will be short of what is needed, the Lakeland Ledger said. The building was designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava.

* * *

“They’ve made an enormous investment in us. They need to let us complete that investment,” board member Sandra Featherman said, according to the Ledger. “We need to be able to finish this building properly, and it’s in their best interest.”

Well, isn’t that interesting?  The justification for Florida Poly’s request for more money is that the state made a major investment in Florida Poly.  Of course, the state made a bigger investment in USF and other state universities, but state building funds are not covering costs, as reported by the Tribune.  Why should taxpayers pay excess costs at a pet-project university that is not even really functioning and that the state does not need?  (Deep pockets created it, they can support it.)

Then there is this:

At a higher-education summit last week in Orlando, House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, said the atmosphere has changed.

“The stars are aligned to have a really good adult conversation about higher education this year in Florida,” Weatherford said.

Part of that conversation should be Florida Poly’s lack of financial restraint.

As one state Senator said (admittedly in slightly different context):

If you’re bold with the leading university, it follows that the others will come on line in the future. But when you just try to create some sort of equitable mediocrity, we’re not going to end up with that top-tier university.

It is a fair point – and another reason why the state shouldn’t spend money on Florida Poly rather than USF, which already has fully developed engineering school and science programs.  We hope the Speaker takes notice.

Built Environment – How Not To Do It, Cont.

From time to time, we opine regarding buildings being built around the area.  We often complain that development in this area, even near downtown, is less than properly urban, such as the Primrose School being built at 1700 W. Kennedy, along the allegedly urban spine of Tampa  and basically anything being built on Dale Mabry between Kennedy and Raymond James Stadium.

Of course, we don’t favor all buildings just because they bring density.  Overall design is important.  Take, for instance, this South Park-esque rendering for a building just approved in West New York, New Jersey:

From Hudson Reporter – click on picture for article

We think further comment is unnecessary.

List of the Week

Our list this week is Forbes’ list of America’s fastest growing cities, 2013 which involves more than just population.

Austin is number 1, followed by Houston, Dallas, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Provo, Phoenix, San Antonio and Portland (OR), rounding out the top 10.

Florida is shut out of the top 20.  Spending tax payer money on retail will not fix that.

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