State of the City 2014
Like we have said in the past, we are not much for speeches like the State of the City because they are mostly fluff, as a Tribune columnist with a generally favorable bent toward the Mayor noted:
You can read the details of his speech elsewhere, but generally he suggested that Tampa is now the center of the universe and that the millennial generation as well as everyone else wants to be a part of what’s happening.
Nevermind San Francisco, Austin, Seattle or Denver.
In any event, this year, we had some time so we decided to check it out. First, the location was a good one – the Armature Works building which, as some may know, was originally a streetcar service building. Second, we openly admit, while quite fluffy, it was a good speech, especially for a campaign speech that would get generally uncritical coverage in the media, like in editorials like this and this (that approach is not just for this Mayor’s State of the City, but most mayors’. See here and here) We also noted that much of the speech sounded to very much like things we have said over the years, such as:
Nice rhetoric. Unfortunately, it is often contrary to the facts. (And note that we were told by the previous mayor back in 2006 that we were already a great American city. What happened?)
The Mayor is good at giving rousing addresses full of big ideas. And, we should note, that most of the big ideas presented in vast generalities, we agree with. As we have said before, the Mayor is an intelligent man who, we think, understands most of the big issues. The problem we usually have is not with the big ideas. It is with settling for something much smaller than the big idea and calling it accomplished.
Because it was a wide-ranging speech, we will not cover every detail, but some things are worth noting.
The most widely covered item in the speech was the Mayor’s discussion of transit.
Instead, Buckhorn said, the region needs to talk about rail that connects Tampa to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.
“Our goal, at the latest, should be a referendum in the fall of 2016,” Buckhorn said. “I would prefer sooner.”
First, there is nothing there with which we disagree (except having a referendum before 2016, simply because there is no plan). It has all been said before by us and others (and some of it by the Mayor). In other words, it is not news, even the referendum idea. Nevertheless, it is good he said it, especially about transportation never really paying for itself, which is a point that opponents of transit completely ignore.
On the other hand, three years into his tenure, while always saying he supported rail, the Mayor still has not given any detail about exactly what he wants. So celebrate that he his apparently on board with the concept, but to lead there should be detail. Vague ideas are part of what got the 2010 referendum defeated.
Then there was this, which is probably the only new-ish thing regarding transportation:
“We need to support Greenlight Pinellas,” he said, referring to the Nov. 4 Pinellas referendum on whether to raise that county’s sales tax by 1 cent to expand bus service and create a 24-mile light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.
That was good.
— The River
As usual, the Mayor focused on the river:
• The Hillsborough River — “This river that you see behind me will be the center of everything that we do,” Buckhorn intoned. He touted the Riverwalk, 40 years in the making, that he expects to be completed by year’s end. The mayor also emphasized the need for redevelopment on the oft-overlooked west side of the Hillsborough, and made reference to the new West River Master Plan.
(Hey, he stays on message.) It is fine to better integrate the river into the city. We have no problem with that or fixing up the west bank of the river (which many people have wanted to do for a long time). Our problem is with the Mayor’s plan. (see “Master Planning – Something in the West River” )
We also have a problem with implementation in areas outside the plan. Unreported in the media, the Mayor said that the area from Howard to the river should be viewed as part of downtown. We are good with that idea, but how does it translate in reality? For instance, during his tenure, this was built on Kennedy. Is that downtown? Is that the urban experience? What is that if not ignoring the big idea and settling?
And, the focus on just the area around downtown will not cut it. Once again unreported in the media, the Mayor, while talking about transportation, made reference to the airport people mover dropping someone off in a walkable Westshore district. However, as we have noted over and over, the City has allowed all manner of particularly non-pedestrian friendly development in Westshore in the last few years. Where is the push to make Westshore actually pedestrian-friendly and walkable? Once again, the idea is good, but the action is lacking.
That does not even discuss all the other neighborhoods that get basically no attention whatsoever.
Another issue is trade.
International trade — “We need to be the gateway to Central America and South America. We need to plant Tampa’s flag in Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and beyond.” The mayor noted that two years ago Panama’s Copa Airlines did not have Tampa on its radar, and now there are direct, three-hour flights on the airline from Tampa International Airport to Panama four days a week, a major catalyst for increased trade.
Setting aside the attempt to take excessive credit for the work of many people (including many who pushed the international flight and international trade issues before he was Mayor or ever publicly raised them), we are not going to even get into the hype-tastic aspect of this. (We have done that enough.) We want to expand trade, but it would be nice if the speech and other comments actually dealt with the issue realistically. For instance, one flight is good, but it is a very long way to THE Gateway to Latin America. (Maybe we should work to be A Gateway first, then move on to THE Gateway.)
— The One Item With Any Detail
Sadly, the Mayor on really presented only one item that included a policy detail:
In talking about his plan to redevelop Perry Harvey St. Park, Buckhorn took a verbal shot at supporters of the Bro Bowl, the last surviving unaltered, public concrete skatepark from the 1970s in the United States. It is now in danger of demolition, though the mayor would like to build a new skate park three times as big, but move it from the center to the northern end of the park. That dispute, which surfaced last year, still continues. “We must give those residents an active park that they can enjoy,” referring to the residents of the Encore project who will be living there. “A park that reflects the history of Central Avenue and that pays homage to the many historic contributions of generations of African-Americans. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but a concrete skate bowl pales in comparison to the history of our African-American community and Central Park. We’re going to get that park done!”
Sadly, the detail involved “either I win or I lose” binary thinking. Why? Because. (Especially given that the park plan is not even his.) Even more oddly, this type of destructive thinking is neither in evidence in the rest of the speech nor necessary because we can have both the Bro Bowl and the renovated park (as we pointed out months ago). There is no reason for the Mayor’s position, which is actually what is holding up the money for getting the park done. It is unfortunate that the Mayor does not seem to understand that inclusiveness is not a sign of weakness.
— Bottom Line
The bottom line is that speeches are nice, but reality is what counts. We hope the City stops settling, but, unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet. Tampa is improving, but it is slow and much of it is the result more of an improved national economy than anything else. (Like The Heights, a Novare project in the Channel District which became Skyhouse, and the Martin, not to mention possible apartments on Harbour Island, which were proposals that were held up by the recession and are now moving forward.)
The fact is that businesses and young professionals are interested in facts on the ground, and they do not care if we are patting ourselves on the back. That is why with decades of positive State of the City-like speeches, even if we are improving, we are still behind our competition.
Economic Development – What Is It?
There have been a number of recent articles that have fleshed out different aspects of economic development. However, each article seems to only deal with one aspect or the other. We thought it might be good to look at a few together.
— Setting Some Goals and Showing Some Insecurity
The first article is a Business Journal article on the goals of the CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.
Well, that’s aggressive and fine with us. How does he intend to get there?
He mapped out a checklist of four main criteria for targeting companies that would be candidates to establish or relocate HQs in Tampa Bay.
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No. 1 — Can they get here? Are there nonstop flights between Tampa and the targeted market?
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No. 2 — Has something happened within the company? (ed. Is there new company leadership?)
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No. 3 — Has something happened in the community? (ed. Like did something change in the politics or economy of their present location?)
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No. 4 — Is there some natural connection to Tampa Bay?
So let’s go through the list. First, flights. That’s all there is to it. We need more flights. We need international and domestic flights. We need a flight to San Francisco. We need a flight to Germany. Everyone should get behind the effort to get more flights, loudly. (It should also be recognized that those who originally pushed this issue years ago against a lot of local political opposition were well ahead of the curve. Not surprisingly, many of them we also out front on getting more service to the Port and also faced opposition.)
The next three are a bit uncontrollable. Things change all the time, but things change here all the time. Frankly, the items are fine, but not necessarily dispositive. In fact, they sort of imply a lack of faith in the area’s appeal as a location and ability to compete to get companies that are just looking to relocate.
More important than those three factors are having a talented pool of potential employees, good schools, good transportation, and a diverse area with many amenities. (Companies don’t go to Atlanta or Denver just because the CEO likes vacationing there. Of course, to be clear, if something like local connections works, great, but it does not really seem to be the basis of an effective strategy.)
Setting that aside for the moment, the CEO did say something important:
By Tampa Bay, he means Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and parts of Polk and Pasco, a metro with a population of 3.2 million. It’s vital, Homans said, to put aside provincial competition and to present as a region. “If a corporation senses infighting between counties or municipalities, that’s pretty much a deal-breaker right there,” he said.
Right. But we are not there yet. Not in economic development, not in regional transportation (though the Mayor’s Greenlight comments were good), not in the Rays. At least pretty much everyone supports the airport.
— Just Because You Have A Deal Does Not Mean It Will Work
One thing that is not mentioned in the article above is incentives. The Times had a recent column discussing three different projects supported by incentives that ended up not working out, including one that involved a headquarters moving to St. Pete. We are not going to recount the entire article (you can read it yourself), but let’s just say that not all changes in circumstances in companies are opportunities.
Incentives can help grease the wheels, but for real economic development the appeal of the area has to be there first.
— The Fun and the Grind
Then there was a Times article about hopes for a big payoff after the “Bollywood Oscars,” which ended with this dose of reality regarding the big, super-hyped events that come to the area from time to time.
In other words, when people say these events will do anything other than fill some hotel rooms and restaurants for a few nights, they are just speculating/hoping, even when there are events with prominent business people.
As we have said many times, we are all for events in the area (provided they do not cost the area that much), but people should be realistic about what they accomplish.
Real economic development takes time, persistence, and enduring quality of amenities, talent pool, transportation, and quality of life. Just talking us up will not cut it. Companies can move to many locations. They can also see through hype. Events provide exposure, which is fine, but our competitors thrive on their attributes and business community, not events. At least people are now talking more realistically about long term engagement to take advantage of the exposure, which is a welcome change. (Interestingly, despite Tampa’s “global coming out” at the RNC and all the other events we have held, a Tribune editorial about the awards and business notes “Tampa is not particularly well known in India,” which is telling. )
— A Final Point
And there is a final point – why should a company invest time and money and make a commitment to this area if the political leaders – and not just a handful, but most or all – (and voters) of this area do not do it and do not maintain real standards of quality (including the built environment)? Why wouldn’t companies (especially ones with high paying jobs) just go where it is clear that the locals are really committed and it is easy to attract needed talent? Why should they wait decades for the possibility of decent transportation and urban environment when they can go elsewhere and get it now?
If locals don’t really care about and bring quality to the area, why would someone else?
Transportation – The Great Greenlight Pinellas Debate
This week, there were a couple of interesting articles on Greenlight Pinellas that indicate once again that the debate is going to be long and full of attempts to confuse the issues, which are already confused enough.
First, PolitiFact looked at the latest No Tax for Tracks argument.
A 300 percent tax increase sounds like a pretty hefty fee to build a light rail line and add more buses. We decided to find out if the county really would be taken for a ride.
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The entire plan hinges on whether Pinellas voters on Nov. 4 approve a sales tax increase from 7 percent to 8 percent, making the county’s sales tax rate the highest in the state. The higher sales tax would replace the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s current county funding, a property tax assessed at a 0.7305 millage rate.
The sales tax would only go up on items already subject to the sales tax; Florida has a long list of items that are not taxed, such as medicine, groceries, certain agricultural and manufacturing startup equipment. It also would be limited to the first $5,000 of major purchases.
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The new sales tax is projected to increase the authority’s budget from its current $34 million per year to about $120 million to $130 million, said Bob Lasher, the agency’s external affairs officer.
This is the source of No Tax For Tracks’ claim that the tax revenue expansion amounts to “a 300 percent tax increase.”
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Under the plan, a family that owns a $161,000 home and makes about $46,000 would stop paying the $90 share of the property tax destined for the transit authority, but it would instead pay $104 in additional sales taxes. Allowing some uncertainty for the exact mix of taxed and tax-exempt purchases, that’s a tax hike of about 15 percent. The increase in dollars in this example is pretty modest — $14 more per year.
County residents who currently don’t own real estate won’t benefit from the authority’s switch from property tax revenue to sales tax revenue, so if they owe $104 in additional sales taxes, that won’t be offset by tax reductions. Still, on a percentage basis, that’s an increase in sales tax burden of about 14 percent. In other words, it’s not correct to call either of these examples of increases a “300 percent tax increase.”
In other words, the No Tax for Tracks argument is deceptive, if not downright false. Admittedly, there is a regressive element in the proposed plan for some people. Some people do not directly pay property tax – though people who rent are likely already paying the landlord’s property taxes. However, an increase in revenue does not mean an increase in taxes for everyone (and certainly not 300%), especially since much of the revenue increase from the sales tax will be from tourists.
In contrast to that argument, there was another article about an effort to actually flesh out the Greenlight proposal better that shows why deceptive arguments can be a real problem.
The bulk of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan is a major transformation of the county’s bus network, a 65 percent expansion of bus service that would mean buses running every 15 minutes on the county’s busiest routes.
Yet, most Pinellas voters associate Greenlight only with its more controversial light-rail element and are in the dark about the plan’s bus improvements, according to a new survey of 1,600 residents by the People’s Budget Review, a group that includes local trade unions, activists and neighborhood associations.
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Almost 52 percent of respondents in the online poll conducted over the past few weeks said they have never heard about the bus plan whereas almost 66 percent were familiar or aware of the plan for a 24-mile light-rail link between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, the survey showed.
In other words, people do not fully understand the plan. (Surprise.) So what is this group going to do?
Organizers from People’s Budget Review say they will hold workshops and also go door-to-door to spread word about Greenlight. The group is not endorsing the Greenlight plan, although it may do so closer to the referendum provided members feel it will benefit a majority of Pinellas residents.
Fine – a normal part of democratic discourse. What does No Tax for Tracks (aka the Tea Party) think of that?
First, so what if the Budget Review people take a position? That is their right, just like it is the Tea Party’s right. Second, maybe such outreach would be less necessary if No Tax for Tracks wasn’t so busy creating distractions and diverting discussion from the real issues.
The reality is that the No Tax for Tracks argument is deceptive and an appeal to raw emotion rather than a real discussion of the issues, but that is what we expect from them. They do not address the issues or how to improve transportation in the area or build the economy. They provide no alternatives other than the status quo or less. They are simply the party of “No.”
Like we said a few weeks ago, just be ready for a campaign of distractions and disinformation.
Downtown – Good and Bad
There was an interesting article in the Tribune on downtown occupancy rates. In sum, occupancy is high, but there are still some issues.
The question remains how many more luxury apartment towers the market can handle. Ken Carl, a real estate banker with PNC Bank, cautions that with the rising cost of construction, continuing to build high-end apartment towers will require an influx of high-paying jobs.
The residential boom is great. It started before the crash, petered out a bit, but is resuming. Problematically, even with the latent demand for urban living, there is the need for high paying jobs to keep filling the growing number of residential units. What those jobs will be is anyone’s guess. The reality is that there still is no big influx of high paying jobs, especially to downtown, which leads to another problem.
Things couldn’t be more different for two segments of downtown real estate, office and residential. Andy May, an office broker for the Cushman & Wakefield firm, lamented that there are no speculative office buildings going up in downtown Tampa, even with single-digit vacancy rates at luxury office towers such as 100 North Tampa, the Regions Bank building.
The Trammell Crow real estate firm has been trying to line up tenants for a proposed 20-story office tower across from the University of South Florida’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, but there’s no word on when that project might go forward.
If you look at downtown development comprehensively, there are really three aspects – residential, office, and retail, with retail being dependent on both residential and office. Tampa is doing well with the first. Apparently the existing office space is also filled, but the demand for more seems low (Just look at the law firms moving to Westshore as well as all the small firms in Hyde Park rather than downtown. On the other hand, there are still rumors of at least one possible big move to downtown. ). Anecdotally, retail is somewhere in the middle.
The City has focused on residential, and that is ok, but there needs to be a push for office. The problem is that offices require more than just people living downtown. They draw employees from all over the area, which requires transportation and creating a positive environment where people live, as well as work. What is the transportation plan? How will the proposed narrowing of Florida and Tampa streets as well as the continuing lack of a real transportation plan really help draw people downtown, especially when Westshore has better highway access and free parking?
It is all well and good to talk about improvements downtown, and there is no doubt that there have been improvements (though not nearly as much as many other areas with which we compete), but there is a glaring hole. What needs to be addressed urgently is to create demand for business to be downtown lest it becomes a bedroom community for Westshore and the I-75 corridor.
Land Use Portal – Good Idea But Not Done
There was an article in the Times regarding Tampa’s new land use web portal, which is having, much like it seems every other government web portal, some birthing issues.
In early 2012, Buckhorn said the city would pay $2.7 million for a fully automated permitting system from Accela, a company based near San Francisco that provides web- and cloud-based software applications to government agencies.
But land-use professionals have told the city they’ve gotten just the opposite. One planning consultant said he and a client spent three days trying to navigate the system. After trying to access the site via Google Chrome and getting numerous error messages, another said he would rather fill out and turn in applications by hand.
The city originally aimed to have all of Accela Citizen Access online by January. Now officials are aiming for July. The first phase that went live in December did not include building permits, but did offer access to applications for less-complicated functions like rezonings, changes of address or splitting a parcel in two.
First, the system can’t find thousands of Tampa addresses. The city imported about 300,000 addresses from perhaps five different files into a new database. But because some of those old address files were incomplete or included ambiguous data, the new system could not match about 18,000 addresses to particular parcels. To fix it, city employees have been updating those files at a rate of 400 to 500 a day.
First, we are not going to fault the City for trying to get everything online. That is a good goal. We are not even going to fault them for the system not working as planned right away. (Though maybe they should have held off on the roll out until it fully worked.) As noted, that seems to be par for the course. From the article, it is clear the City is trying to get it worked out.
Our biggest issue is that when we went to the portal, even those items we found provide links to the actual documents. Maybe we were not using it properly, but such items should not require complicated steps. Other cities have had such information accessible online for years. If it is not part of the system, it needs to be, and, even if it is part of it, the system is not natural and intuitive. Fortunately, all that can be fixed.
Port – Es La Gran Piña, (Port) Tampa Bay
The Port recently held a meeting to try to convince Latin Americans to ship pineapples through Tampa.
“It’s part of our business plan, our strategy,” said Raul Alfonso, the chief commercial officer of Port Tampa Bay.
The port is especially keen on cargo from Latin America, which is now producing more and more of what the United States consumes — including pineapples.
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It’s hard to believe that a port once known for its iconic banana docks actually has to persuade importers to ship their fruit to Tampa.
In the 1990s, fruit from all over the world ended up on Tampa’s docks. But that dried up in the next decade. The last fruit importer left in 2009, and the port tore down its dilapidated refrigerated warehouse.
Hey, why not pineapples, and all sorts of other things. Diversification is good, including in diversification of markets. It is notable that there is no explanation of why the business dried up. Did the port let it atrophy or were there external reasons? Did others just poach our business? In any event, what is the pitch?
The port is also building a refrigerated facility to service CSX’s high-speed “Green Express” food cargo train. The $18 million facility is in the design phase and should be completed by 2015. The port is splitting the cost with private interests.
Sounds good, though we are not sure that shipping to Mobile, New Orleans or Houston then going by rail is slower. (Really, we are not sure. It would be nice to have that addressed to tighten the pitch.)
Overall, this is all good with us. The more things shipped through Tampa (whether imports or exports) the better. Aggressiveness is good, as is the lack of hype. That is the approach this area needs – a sober, businesslike approach that is ambitious in its goals and that does not oversell its achievements.
We would like it more if we could get more containers going, too.
List of the Week
Our first list this week is the Knight Frank 2014 Wealth Report, which lists the favorite cities for the ultra-wealthy.
Coming in first is London, followed by NYC, Singapore, Hong Kong, Geneva, Shanghai, Miami, Dubai, Beijing, and Paris.
List of the Week II
Our second list this week is dailymeal.com’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants in America. The criteria are here.
Come to think of it, we are not going to list a bunch of restaurants. Just know that none of them are in Florida.