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Roundup 8-2-2013

August 2, 2013

More Talking About Jobs and Transportation

We often discuss economic development efforts, the tendency to overly hype accomplishments, and how that leads to complacency. We have also noted that some people’s job is to hype and some accomplishments are somewhat hype-worthy.

— On Jobs

Last week, one of those people spoke at length:

A top local employment recruiter said Thursday that a handful of companies are strongly considering locating in Hillsborough County, with the potential of adding 4,000 jobs in the area.

* * *

Homans was at the workshop seeking a quarter million dollars more next year for the Economic Development Corp., a public-private partnership that serves as the lead economic development agency for Hillsborough County. He is seeking an increase from $450,000 to $700,000; the commission is set to decide this and other proposals Thursday.

Making the case for his request, Homans listed recent economic development achievements in the county, including the possible location of an Amazon.com assembly and distribution center in Ruskin with 1,000 jobs, the announcement by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb that it will open a business office here with 579 new jobs, and Copa Airlines’ decision to begin Tampa-to-Panama flights.

Then Homans talked about the 4,000 potential jobs “in the pipeline.” That number includes Amazon’s 1,000 jobs, Homans said, because the company hasn’t made a final decision on where it will build its three new Florida warehouses.

“The pipeline is very strong,” Homans told commissioners. “Right now we have well over … 4,000 jobs in the very active, imminent pipeline that we will be hearing more about in the next 30 to 60 days.”

Well, 4000 jobs would be good (though counting Amazon as new jobs and potential jobs is a bit odd).  The more jobs, the better, though there is no guarantee the jobs are actually coming and the 4000 does not count the possible loss of 1200 jobs at MacDill.   Moreover, there is no indication of the cost to the taxpayer or the nature of the potential jobs.  In other words, the number is nice, but it is speculation at this point – until we get the jobs, we have not gotten them.

— On the Relationship Between Jobs and Transportation

More important to us than the sales pitch was something else he said:

Homans also told commissioners that to attract even more jobs, and move into the upper echelon of metro areas seen as desirable by employers and talented workers, it needs a mass transit system and a baseball stadium downtown.

* * *

Homans’ comments about mass transit and a downtown Tampa baseball stadium were in response to a question from Commissioner Mark Sharpe. What would it take, Sharpe asked, to have Tampa and Hillsborough County mentioned along with other so-called “hot cities” for growth, innovation and overall desirability?
* * *

In addition to mass transit and the ballpark, Homans listed three other attributes:

° Designated economic development areas with permit-ready building sites linked to mass transit.

° More corporate headquarters in the county.

° And an entrepreneurial community “reeking with innovation” that “attracts venture capital.”

We are glad the economic development official did not beat around the bush on transportation. (A downtown stadium would be nice, but is not in the same category of importance.)  Maybe the County Commissioners will listen some day.

Moreover, we also do not have a problem with the general idea of economic development areas, provided that the process of defining them is not just used as an excuse to enrich certain landowners at the taxpayer’s expense and that it those areas designated really are part of properly planned mass transit system.  Frankly, to do define economic development areas properly, there has to be a mass transit plan and proper planning and design guidelines before any area is designated.  Additionally, you need to include the City of Tampa, where the two biggest economic zones in the county already exist.  Otherwise, we will just get more County funded sprawl, per the statements of the County Commission during the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops debate.

The question is do you trust the County Commission to do it correctly?

— On the Do Nothing Commission

Also last week, the Times had a business column about transportation in the Tampa Bay area, focusing on Hillsborough (probably because Pinellas is already going to have a referendum).  While much of the column consisted of statements from business leaders regarding the need for mass/rail transit, the key was what some County Commissioners said:

“There is a cost to do something” for mass transit, says Hillsborough commissioner Mark Sharpe, who showed political courage this past week by raising the possibility of new taxes for mass transit. “But there is also a cost if we do not.” He worries the recently won consensus by county officials to do something could be easily derailed.

Right.  We understand this Commissioner understands the basic argument, though his idea for starter transit was not particularly useful. Of course, his proposal is more substantive than pretty much every other elected official in Hillsborough County has proposed (which is nothing), so that is something.

Did any other Commissioners make a comment?

Several county commissioners, including Sandy Murman, say they want public-private partnerships formed to help share the cost of any mass transit system.

In other words, throw up a catch phrase but do not provide any detail or plan – basically do nothing.  What are these partnerships supposed to do?  What are they building?  Where?  What is the goal?  What is the timeframe? We are not told, because that requires a Commissioner to actually say something substantive.

As the Times pointed out last week in an editorial that echoed our position:

But at County Center, where commissioners have been patting themselves on the back for committing tax money to attract warehouses and big-box retail stores, the silence on transit is deafening. Some commissioners say the failed vote in 2010 shows that residents oppose new taxes and mistrust government. Some believe the county can scrape together adequate funding from elsewhere in the budget. Others want to stall by reinventing the wheel and navel-gazing about whether buses or rail are really a solution. It all reflects the commission’s unwillingness to take on the most conservative voters, who oppose any new taxes or investment in mass transit. As the economy recovers, the county is falling further behind other metro areas.

* * *

A panel of elected leaders from Hillsborough and its three cities has met as a sounding board in recent weeks to check the public’s pulse on a new transit package. There is an appetite for action the commission cannot ignore, and leaders can do it right this time by completing a plan before establishing a timetable for a referendum. The enduring lesson from 2010 is not that Hillsborough voters are against mass transit. It’s that they want a better plan.

Unfortunately, what we are getting is lots of talk and very little substance.  While we are used to that, it is not going to cut it, especially when other areas are moving right along while our elected officials talk in circles.

(Just to emphasize how little they care about the underfunded transportation system in Hillsborough County, this week the County Commission passed a ridiculously miniscule and completely symbolic “tax cut,” proving the Commissioners are far more interested in style over substance. )

Transportation – Streetcar Funding

Speaking of transportation, there was an article in the Tribune about the streetcar that was a little surprising.

The Tampa Historic Streetcar board said Wednesday it would seek financial support from the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council as the system’s endowment funds will be used up in fiscal 2014.

The rationale for seeking supplemental funding from tourism sources is that the streetcar is less of a transportation mode than a visitors industry amenity, said streetcar board member Karen Jaroch, who also sits on the county’s transit board.

Visitors groups promote the streetcar between downtown Tampa and Ybor City to recruit conferences and tourists, board members pointed out, [sic]

In June, 8,043 streetcar passengers were convention attendees riding free during the first month of a new promotional strategy offering the trips for conference attendees, [sic]

“We can’t continue to operate this way,” Jaroch said about the non-profit streetcar’s declining budget and resultant declines in service. “We need to find another funding source.”

In keeping with our policy of giving credit where credit is due, we agree with the Tea Party HART board member: the streetcar can’t continue this way; it needs full, sustainable funding.  This all goes back to the main streetcar problem – it is run as a service for tourists rather than as part of a comprehensive transportation system – which we do not have.  Until that changes, the streetcar will always have problems.  The problem now is this:

The fiscal 2014 proposed streetcar budget to be approved in September is just less than $2 million.

During peak years, the streetcar system budget for system that began operation in 2002 was about $2.5 million.

But that’s been in decline despite drawing down money from an endowment fund that originated with $5 million obligated for the defunct downtown People mover that served Harbour Island.

The streetcar endowment was expected to gradually decline to $1.1 million in 2025, but it’s been depleted.

Numerous factors, including the investment market decline in 2008, the lack of significant endowment contributions for station and car naming rights, a $400,000-plus annual insurance premium to cover a streetcar-CSX rail crossing in Ybor City. and lower special assessment revenue than expected from the economic downturn depleted the fund, which has been used to cover streetcar operations.

While it is not clear that funding from tourist taxes is a solution, it is worth examining – as is pushing CSX to lower the $400,000 premium, which is a very large portion of the streetcar budget.  (The CSX issue came up briefly last year – see here – and then disappeared.  Getting CSX to be helpful would be a useful public-private partnership.)

It will be interesting to see if this is a real effort to fix the problem or just a strategy to appear constructive then call to kill the streetcar.  Hopefully, it is the former.

Transportation – MetroRapid and the Rest of HART

Staying with transportation, the Tribune reported that, in its first month, the MetroRapid bus had decent number of riders.

During the month of June, including one week of free rides and three weeks with HART’s standard $2 one-way fare, ridership has nearly doubled from the first four days of service in May to a daily average of 1,929 riders on the Monday-Friday schedules.

Ridership figures from July weren’t available, but it appears the route continues to gain passengers, spokeswoman Sandra Morrison said.

“A new service takes two years to mature,” she said, referring to time required to educate potential riders to new travel opportunities. “So far, MetroRapid is doing well and we’ll have a better understanding at the six-month mark.”

* * *

For the time being, the focus is on building ridership along Nebraska, including getting passengers to understand how to best use MetroRapid. That includes some who might hop off at one of the Metro Rapid stations and walk to catch a Route 2 bus that might make a more convenient stop.

That is good.  We hope it gets better.  Of course, ridership may have been even better if people could switch bus lines without having to walk to a new bus stop (which is quite a bizarre way to run a network). In any event, we are glad MetroRapid is doing ok.  We look forward to seeing how the route develops.

More generally, one customer comment was very interesting:

Robert Parker, who has been riding HART buses for two years, said MetroRapid saves 10 to 15 minutes over driving his customary route along Nebraska Avenue.

“It’s stupid fast,” said Parker before his MetroRapid ride Wednesday. “What’s also different is these buses are brand new, compared with old rickety equipment with flat cushions. The air conditioner works well, The buses are clean. The drivers are knowledgeable.”

Really, what does that say about how the normal HART buses operate?

And then there was this:

Some in the transportation industry call HART’s MetroRapid variant Bus Rapid Transit Lite. Unlike the most expensive and fastest Bus Rapid Transit systems worldwide, Tampa’s buses do not have separate, bus-only lanes and travel along with regular highway traffic.

Some may call it a Cuban Sandwich, but the reality is that MetroRapid is finally a bus route operating as a bus route should.  It is not bus rapid transit, lite or otherwise.  It is what HART buses should have been doing all along, as indicated by this quote from a couple of months ago:

“MetroRapid will show the benefit of transportation that draws on the effectiveness of what a properly designed and operating bus system can provide,” said Philip Hale, HART’s chief executive.

Right.

And finally there was this:

While it’s up to the HART board to create a vision and goals for the county’s transportation system, Hale said it would be sensible to build ridership with MetroRapid routes to better pave the way for more sophisticated and costly modes, such as light rail.

However, HART has never had a vision for the county’s transportation system.  (Though if the HART board wants to take credit for the transportation mess we have now, go ahead.)

Moreover, while we have no problem with MetroRapid and there is a place for properly running buses, it is not a replacement for a real transit system including rail.  There is no reason to waste money creating a bus line when you know it will be replaced with a rail line.  We have had enough half solutions.  Time is wasting while other cities are building.

Transportation – More Ferry Dust

Speaking of transportation, again, there was an article in the Times of how the proposed ferry plan is mutating:

Under the initial proposal, backers were asking Hillsborough County taxpayers to front as much as $24 million to pay for docks, parking and even the boats. But the county is pressing New Albany, Ind.-based HMS Ferries Inc. to pay for those capital costs in exchange for a possible operating subsidy to cover some portion of what the company does not recoup in fares.

County officials say the initial proposal puts too much of the risk on taxpayers at a time when government coffers still face stark shortfalls in tax revenues to pay for things such as roads, drainage and other needs.

“The good part of this approach is, if it doesn’t work we’re not stuck with a bunch of boats that we don’t know what to do with,” said County Administrator Mike Merrill. The gives the county the ability to pull the plug if needed, he said.

There is some merit to this change.  On the other hand, in the original proposal, the County would keep the infrastructure.  Who gets it in this scenario?  And how fast will the plug be pulled given the County’s lack of support for anything other than widening roads for strip malls?

Then there is this?

“There’s a will here to try to make it work, but it’s got to be advantageous to the public,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has been among the most actively engaged elected officials in talks. “I’m not sure there’s a will to put $8 million into it.”

That’s one figure that has been floated as the initial county investment under the original pitch, though Turanchik said most numbers associated with the deal are fluid.

While we do not necessarily support the ferry plan, the real question is whether the County has a will to do anything.  Notably, the County share of costs listed in the article is less than the County subsidy for Estuary/Bass Pro Shops and SouthShore Commons.  Though, to be fair, in the original reporting, the Times said the initial capital costs of the ferry would be even higher:

The price tag for building docks, parking areas, two boats big enough to carry 250 to 300 people and trams at MacDill to get riders to their workplace on base could range from $11 million to $17 million for the first phase of about three years.

How did the numbers change?

This all indicates a real problem.  These random proposals come up seeking public money, but the public is really blind to any of the real costs or options.  Moreover, Hillsborough County has no real transportation plan (or, for that matter, urban development plan) so it is not clear how this proposal fits into priorities and whether it is worth it.  And, because the County waits for companies to propose everything, there is no competitive bidding process.  It is all too ad hoc and disjointed.

In any event, it is not clear how the potential job cuts at MacDill will affect this proposal and whether it makes sense.

This entire issue is just another example of how, on transportation, the County government has no vision and no political will.

Looking at the Heights

About a decade of so after the first plans for the Heights project in Tampa Heights were announced, it seems to be moving forward with new developers.

Rendering of Armature Works From the Tribune – click on picture for article

Now, a new pair of Tampa-based developers with SoHo Capital have quietly acquired the 37-acre site and are moving forward with a new vision to build a historic-style, mixed-use neighborhood called The Heights, anchored by adapting the huge Armature Works brick warehouse, and surrounding it with revival-theme offices, a boutique hotel, a significant grocery store, 1,000-plus homes and a broad park on waterfront.
* * *

. . . They need to create critical mass on site almost all at once, with independent-themed projects, rather than cookie-cutter brand names that appear anywhere else in town. That means indi stores rather than Walmarts and quirky retailers rather than The Gap.

Contractors have already started some simple repairs to the Armature Works building, and they plan to fully break ground around year end . . .

So what is the overall plan?

Housing will be split among several smaller, mid-rise buildings, with potentially 1,100 units, including condos, apartments and an affordable housing section. Retail will be spread out among 100,000 square feet of space, roughly the size of a Super Walmart in total . . .

* * *
The 160,000 potential square feet of office space will be spread among several four and five story buildings, rather than one huge office block.

A boutique hotel should be part of the mix, Harden said, most likely with a four-star, yet “select service” hotel that would use the Armature Works building for its event space..
* * *
In theory, the new neighborhood could reach a population of 4,300, rivaling the population of the fast-growing Channel District.

That all sounds good (though we hope the quirky shops work out better than the Harbour Island festival marketplace.)  In an interview in the Biz Journal (see here) the developers say they want the project to have the feel of National Harbor in DC.  (See here and here) That is a good minimum scale for the area, though a little more density would also be good.

We are very interested in this project.  It is a key to developing the city.  While it is positive that developers are explaining what is planned, there is not enough detail to fully discuss the plan.  It will be interesting to see what ultimately happens: will it develop as described or, as so often happens, become much more suburban or stay empty?  We have some hope, but time will tell.

Channel District – Something This Way Comes?

This week, there are a few developments regarding proposed developments in the Channel District.

The City Council has given initial approval to a rezoning for the proposed SkyHouse Channelside, a 23-story tower with 320 apartments.

It is in the Channel District, on 1.5 acres east of 11th Street between Washington and Whiting streets. Its developer is the Novare Group of Atlanta, whose track record in Tampa includes the Element and Skypoint high-rises in downtown.

At 275 feet, the glass-walled SkyHouse would be one of the tallest buildings in the Channel District. Its top floor would include a fitness room, swimming pool, outdoor grilling area and views of both the city skyline and waterfront.

* * *

A final council vote on the SkyHouse rezoning is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 8. Novare executives expect to break ground in mid-September and anticipate that construction would take a year or less.

The rendering looks like this:

From the Tribune – click on picture for website

That is fine.  What was odd was, even though the project got unanimous approval, there was this:

The 23-story tower and its 6-story parking garage will tower over the district’s other buildings. Montelione noted.

“Scale is important to me,” she told the developers. “It just seems like it does not fit for me.”

Huh? The comment is bizarre not just because the lot was already approved for a taller building, but a few blocks away the Towers (2 of them) of Channelside are taller and Grand Central (2 more buildings) is almost as tall.  What exactly is the scale problem?  Why is it that this issue keeps coming up in and around downtown?

The comment notwithstanding, the proposal got preliminary approval. It would be nice to have construction start in September, especially because of this (which also points out the oddness of the scale remark):

Last month, council members approved a similar tower about a block north of the SkyHouse project. The Martin, by veteran Channel District developers Ken Stoltenberg and Frank Bombeeck, will stand 24 stories tall and feature 316 apartments.

Stoltenberg, who developed Grand Central at Kennedy, said Friday that construction on his project is scheduled to start in October, with completion in late 2015 or early 2016. His plans call for 316 residential units, 36,887 square feet of retail and a 620-space parking garage on 2.3 acres along Meridian Avenue between Twiggs and Madison streets.

This all makes clear that the City should not have settled for suburban style apartments in the heart of the Channel district.

Perry Harvey Park, the Bro Bowl, and Really Honoring the History of Central Avenue

Recently, there has been a lot of ink used discussing the Bro Bowl skateboard facility and Perry Harvey Park.  Most of the ink has been to criticize efforts to have the Bro Bowl recognized as historic (even though it is) because that would interfere with the City’s plan to honor the historically African-American neighborhood around Central Avenue, which also should be done.  We are not going to get into details about this whole argument, though we will point out that the Times ran an article that advocates recognizing both histories.

The fact is that we all share this area and histories of various groups overlap – because, in reality, it is all our common history.  That does not mean that the history of different groups should not be recognized and honored – it should be, but it can be done in a way that does not exclude anyone.

But we actually have a different point – this is about design.  Central Avenue was a hub of activity and music.  There was street life and entertainment.  That is what is supposed to be honored.  If that is so, why is the Encore development building a large surface parking lot and wall facing Perry Harvey Park and Central Avenue in the Trio building (on the right side of the rendering?

From Baker Barrios – click on picture for website

What does that really say? Why does the building turn its back to Central Avenue and the park?  How does a parking lot honor the history and liveliness of Central Avenue and the spirit of the neighborhood?

We like the Encore project generally, but would it really have been so hard to do this part of it right?

List of the Week

This week we delve a little into something that was reported in the Tribune: Airbnb’s list of most hospitable cities.  This is what the list is about:

Every day, Airbnb hosts across the US are practicing the ultimate form of hospitality: opening their homes to travelers from all over the world. Whether it’s a tour of their city, a home-cooked meal, or even just a bottle of wine in the fridge, hospitality is at the core of the Airbnb experience they offer.

This got us wondering: where are Airbnb hosts doing this the best? What are the most hospitable cities in America?

Tampa is number one, followed by Mendocino, Calif; Eugene, Ore.; Bend, Ore.; Raleigh; Memphis; Madison; Nashville; Tucson; and Lake Tahoe, Calif.

So Tampa has the nicest people renting out space in their houses.  It’s good to be hospitable.

One Comment leave one →
  1. EJB permalink
    August 2, 2013 3:14 PM

    The ferry idea is one of the few that I see some merit in with funding from the county. If the county builds the infrastructure and buys the boats, then contracts with a company to run the operation and maintain it, with profits split in some way, would this work? Especially if the contract is for a specified number of years with the proviso that the county has to open up bidding to all interested parties. I would much rather see money spent in this manner than giving it to developers to build a go no where/do nothing road for the benefit of Bass Pro Shops.

    As an interesting side question, the county spent how much money on the South Shore Commons roads? Will the proposed ferry also help the developers of the South Shores with their expenses? Just a thought.

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