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Roundup 6-12-2014

June 12, 2014

Due to unforeseen circumstances, this week’s Roundup had to be posted a day early.


Transportation – Piecemeal as Usual

The HART Board Chairman had some interesting things to say last week:

Without the backing of the business community, the regional transit system will be hard-pressed to expand successfully, members of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association heard Thursday.

Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, who also serves as board chairman for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) board, spoke to the group during its June membership luncheon.

“We need better choices for our community,” Suarez said. “The most important thing about transit is that it helps develop our businesses.” In Cleveland, he said, a city with an award-winning transit system, $4 billion to $5 billion has been invested near its two hubs, proof that transit can bring economic growth.

“The easier it is to get around, the easier it is to sell hotel and motel rooms. We want to be able to provide mass transit” for trips to the zoo and Pinellas County beaches, he said. To do that, a truly regional transit system must be in place.

And, he said HART needs more money to make the transit system more robust. “We may need a sales tax.” Suarez spoke briefly about the ongoing discussion among area elected officials to put a referendum before voters for a sales tax that would pay for expanded rapid transit coordinated between counties, among other projects.

“We have 186 buses and vans. We probably should have double that for a city and county of our size,” Suarez said.

Sure.  That makes sense. (And note that Cleveland has a decent sized rail system to which its actual BRT-ish line – not like MetroRapid – connects.  And note – the rail goes to the airport.) The business community does need to support transit.  And we need more buses.  Of course, whether that is useful or not depends on how the buses are used and whether there is a comprehensive, coordinated, synchronized transportation system.

So, is there?

“Bus rapid transit is our next goal,” Suarez said. Regional planners are working with the Florida Department of Transportation right now on a plan to add express toll lanes to local Interstates 275, 75 and 4 that could be used by both cars and buses to loosen gridlock.

No. While the Transportation for Economic Development group is supposed to unveil their plan next month, it appears that HART and FDOT are just continuing business as usual.  Even if this idea has some utility, it should be part of the overall vision, which does not seem to be the case.

As with the things we discussed last week, the questions here are pretty straight forward:  How does this fit into an overall plan?  Where are the lanes supposed to go, and are there better uses for the land?  What happens when the lanes reach capacity?  Why is the HART board acting like it might not be radically changed soon?

So what was the reaction to the HART Board Chairman’s comments?

“Rapid transit, or transit in general in our community has been transformed,” Morrison said. The transformation was triggered by MetroRapid, HART’s limited answer to bus rapid transit — express buses that have fewer stops and that can manipulate traffic lights to stay on a faster schedule.

Well, actually, our area is pretty much the same way it was before – deficient.  There is absolutely no sign of a transformation in transit that would help hotels or hospitality in any way. Nothing has really changed other than the Tribune finally coming closer to accurately describing MetroRapid. (Though what they mean by “limited” is not clear.  The reality is that MetroRapid is not even close to BRT.  It is more like regular bus service with fewer stops.)

What actually seems to be happening is that every vested interest in Hillsborough County is trying to get its idea out there before the TED groups unveils its plan in order to prejudge what is the plan is.  Sadly, it seems all very uncoordinated, which does not bode well for the plan. (On the other hand, it could all be coordinated but not announced, which is just as bad.)

Given the gamesmanship, hopefully, the TED group is not just another version of this:

If one symbol helps capture the bureaucracy of companies too big and too bewildered in the economic headlights, it may be the “GM Nod.” That phrase appears in the recent 325-page report detailing a three-month investigation of why GM took more than a decade to recall 2.59 million vehicles with potentially fatal flaws. The GM Nod happens when everyone in a company meeting agrees to take a proposed action without any intention of doing so.

This gesture is not to be confused with the “GM Salute” — also cited in the report — described as “a crossing of the arms and pointing outward toward others, indicating the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me.”

We are not that optimistic, but we will just have to see.

Transportation – the Downtown “Trolley”

There was an interesting column in the Times this week about the Tampa downtown “trolley,” which is really a dressed up bus that looks more at home shuttling visitors in a 1980’s theme park parking lot than downtown.

From HART – click on picture for website

When I started thinking about it, I realized I’d seen this trolley now and again and heard mention here and there. Turns out the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority does indeed run the In-Town Trolley every 15 minutes on a logical route that takes in major office buildings, hotels and the convention center, at a most modest fare of 25 cents. What’s not to like?

Then, I saw the hours — 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. As in, idle when most downtown workers are out and about.


First, we agree, the hours are questionable – and something not to like.  Second, unless you live on Harbour Island and work downtown, the utility of the “trolley” is not that great.

“We used to have all-day (trolley) service — kind of ironically — before we had the plethora of restaurants,” Karen Kress of the Downtown Tampa Partnership says.

* * *

HART spokeswoman Sandra Morrison says hours for the trolleys were cut in 2011 after “poor ridership and budget concerns,” and that it would cost about $90,000 to expand those hours. The city pays $200,000 to run the current service yearly.

Hillsborough Commissioner and transit proponent Mark Sharpe sighs when I call. (He does that a lot when I call.) “I was shocked to find out — and I’m on HART’s board — that we had one,” he says of the in-town trolley service.

Setting aside that the last bit is odd, it is not surprising that a dressed up bus that looks like something for tourists and does not really connect much had poor ridership.  Of course, there is more to connect now, but still.

And when I ask a handful of fellow downtowners about their trolley knowledge, nearly everyone thought I was talking about that streetcar to Ybor.

Right.  No matter how hard you try to sell it to the public, a dressed up bus is not a trolley, it is a dressed up bus. (You can find the definition of trolley here)  And the area it services is not that big. You can walk most of it without having to wait for a bus – though if you are going the full distance of the route it makes some sense.

Yet, there is some merit to circulators, especially when they are connected to rapid transit – like a train.  The rail gets you across the large distance while the trolley gets you to and from the station – that how a coordinated, comprehensive, transportation system works.

The reality is that it is hard to see the appeal of a dressed up bus with a silly name that does not go many places, does not connect to much, does not function most of the time, and is not part of an efficient, coordinated, synchronized system.

In any event:

Changing how we view buses — and just as important, how we sell them to potential riders — will take a “cultural mind-shift,” Sharpe says. He’s right, and transportation types will tell you they are working on downtown as we speak.

Indeed, we have to stop thinking of buses as the be all and end all of transit options. We have to integrate them into real systems. And we have to stop acting like they are just for tourists or just a last resort for riders with no car – but that will only happen when bus are part of a real system. (And the same goes for the streetcar or rail – they need to be part of a system that includes buses, especially circulators.)

We think buses are integral to a system, but they need to be part of system.  The fact is we do need to change how we view buses, and that change needs to begin at HART and in local government.

Economic Development – Who’s Your Daddy?

Last week, there were a number of items regarding complaints the Hillsborough County Commission had about the EDC:

Hillsborough County commissioners today criticized Rick Homans, leader of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., for failing to communicate on a regular basis with the county government, the EDC’s biggest public funding source.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham led the charge, saying Homans had “lost his way” in ignoring the EDC’s prime government benefactor when Homans launched key initiatives, such as bringing the MediFuture 2024 medical conference to Tampa in September. Higginbotham also said Homans had been talking to surrounding counties about a joint economic development effort, which commissioners learned about through a local business journal.

“He’s ignoring this board,” Higginbotham said. “I don’t like it.”

Homans was not at the commission meeting. He could not be reached for comment.

Other commissioners remarked that none of them had been invited on overseas trade missions, while Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has gone a number of such trips.

“I would like an explanation of why we haven’t been invited on these trips,” Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. “I appreciate that our largest municipality is Tampa, but Hillsborough County is providing a large amount of these funds and Hillsborough County should be involved, absolutely.”

Beckner said his main concern is that the county, though providing the bulk of public support for economic development, is not being branded as a good destination for companies that want to relocate.

“It has to do with the branding of Hillsborough County,” Beckner said later. “Taxpayer dollars from outside the city of Tampa are (supporting the EDC). I think they need to be used to brand Hillsborough County.”

In all honesty, there is a decent amount of reasonableness in these concerns, if they are limited to what is stated.

First, the EDC does get more money from the County than the City, so it is a bit odd that the Mayor goes on all these trips but County Commissioners do not get invited. This Tribune editorial called the complaint about trade missions “petty,” which is a bit odd, given that the media are the ones that create the impression that the Mayor is the key to all the trade missions.  See, for example, here, here, here, and here (a Tribune article from the EDC website), not to mention this EDC press release.  Is it any wonder the Commissioners are annoyed. Why should the Mayor get to hog the spotlight?  (The media have only themselves to blame.) Yes, it is politics, but why did you expect from local politicians, including the Mayor? And blatantly favoring the Mayor is a political mistake when he does not control the money or the votes.  If you don’t think so, enjoy that light rail trip to the airport.

Moreover, the EDC should be providing the County Commission with full information (even if they tend not to be that productive – maybe they will change). And, while we are very much in favor of regionalism, the EDC should be working with the County as well as the City and business leaders on it.

On the other hand, if the complaints are just a way to get in the way of a regional approach or impede economic development (like there is not enough of that from the County Commission already), then the complaints are ill-conceived.

This is how a quite Times column described the EDC’s reaction:

Under Homans and an energized staff, the economic development group has helped deliver some major business expansion projects in both Tampa and Hillsborough County. Two whopper deals — the high-end expansion of drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Amazon distribution center — happen to be sited on county land.

The Hillsborough County Commission provides $700,000 to the EDC in fiscal 2014, or just under a quarter of the total EDC budget of $2.9 million. More than half of the EDC budget comes from area businesses, sponsorships and revenue generated by EDC events.

None of this is meant to excuse Homans and his team for failing to communicate properly — with maybe a touch of bowing and scraping — to county government.

That’s why Homans has already offered his mea culpa in print and spent most of Friday talking to County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Assistant County Administrator Ron Barton to try to ease tensions. That process continues this coming week with others in county government.

“I am committed to increasing our culture of communications,” Homans said Friday.

“Rick recognizes the Hillsborough County Commission is the EDC’s largest shareholder, so we have to make sure we communicate with them, no doubt,” says banker Allen Brinkman, the EDC’s current chairman and the CEO of SunTrust Tampa Bay. The EDC reports quarterly to the County Commission, while one commissioner even sits on the EDC board. “So the perception was that the county was getting enough information, but perhaps the individual commissioners were not.”

Brinkman calls Wednesday’s meeting remarks “unfortunate.”

“I believe this is an easy, solvable issue,” Brinkman says.

First, Bristol-Myers Squibb was a pretty big deal.  An Amazon warehouse is hardly a whopper. (This data center, though not that big, is more in line with what should be long term goals. And USAA, which just broke ground on its expansion in the area but is not mentioned in the column, is not bad, but USAA was already familiar with the area, so . . .)

Setting that aside, the EDC properly said they will work to be more communicative, though maybe they should spend time talking to the Commissioners who publicly complained, which is not what apparently happened.

In our view, this is all more of a speed bump – in a parking lot, given our lagging behind other areas in terms of economic development. (Which is partly the EDC’s fault, partly the fault of elected officials who have adopted poor policies for years, and, in all honesty, partly the public’s fault for tolerating the status quo for so long.)  The EDC has done some good things.  It can do a lot more, as can the County.  And using past performance comparisons as a measure of success is quite weak.  We should compare ourselves to areas with which we compete, like Denver or Austin, today.

We would be much happier if the Commissioners’ complaints were about the failure to produce more big deals, diversification in the economy, the failure to keep up with competitors, and increase in the per capital regional product, but that is not the normal course of business here.

So, in sum, everyone is to blame.  Now fix it.

Economic Development – Housing

So, how is the economy really doing?  Let’s look at housing:

The Bennetts are among thousands in Tampa Bay caught in a tale of two recoveries: one for wealthy buyers who can afford pricier homes, pay cash or easily get loans, and one for everyone else.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis comparing the number of sales year over year for the six months ending in April shows the dramatic trend:

• Homes priced above $500,000: Up 14.97 percent.

• $250,000 to $500,000: Up 7.6 percent.

• $125,000 to $250,000: Up 1.9 percent.

• Below $125,000: Down 13.2 percent.

That shift is important because a healthy housing market —and a thriving local economy depends enormously on the middle class, which still accounted for about 80 percent of the 16,000 homes sold.

Their spending ripples through layer after layer of the economy, from movers and remodelers to appliance makers, and their confidence after moving up or finding a first home can influence their financial decisionmaking for years to come.

But the Tampa Bay housing market, which an index of mortgage giant Freddie Mac recently called one of the nation’s weakest, still shows few signs of rallying for anyone but the upper crust.

Apparently, not so well.  But, given those numbers, it is clear why some insist the economy is really moving forward – some are doing fine. For the rest, not so much:

Most middle-class hopefuls earn wages that have stagnated as median home prices, now at $160,000 in Tampa Bay, have grown year over year for 29 months in a row. Interest rates for a 30-year fixed mortgage climbed in recent months to a full percentage point over the year before.

Many hopeful buyers never get that far. Banks imposed super-strict guidelines for new loans after the housing bust, blocking buyers with old debts or weak credit from qualifying.

That is interesting.  Economic development efforts here often use the low cost of workers as incentive.  However, that low cost comes with a price.  Wages for most are not really going anywhere, which is why we are not calling the Amazon warehouse a big win.  There are also other reasons (like lack of houses on the market because their owners can’t find an affordable house to move to) but most are tied to wages and debt, though investors who propped up the market not buying up homes is also an issue. (For some more of the reasons, see this Times article on prices slipping for the first time in months.)  And people with low wages buy less from other people, holding up economic growth.

The bottom line is that as long as we are determined to be a low wage (retail, tourism, call centers, etc.) and housing based economy, there will be a problem.  That is what the EDC, the County, the City, and everyone else interested in economic development should be focusing on.

Channelside – Planning by Judge

There was more news in the Channelside saga:

In a little over three weeks, investors hoping to take over Channelside Bay Plaza will have yet another chance to bid against one another and maybe take over the long-struggling retail property.

However, unlike past unsuccessful auctions, this new process has something else going for it: A federal judge is ultimately in charge. Date: Wednesday, July 2, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Ok, whatever.  But this is a bit different:

Price alone won’t rule the day, as bankruptcy courts consider both the highest offers but also the best use, meaning the court will also consider which parties have a credible plan to follow through with rehabilitating the complex, as bankruptcy courts generally favor a productive investor reviving a struggling property.

The port owns the land underneath Channelside, but leases the above-ground property to the now-bankrupt tenant. Hence the complexity.

One big difference between the first auction and this current one is this: The court will have more direct control over Channelside’s fate because it may also decide this month on whether Port Tampa Bay still retains a so-called “veto” over the transfer of one tenant to another.

It is an indication of what a mess this whole issue has become that a judge will be deciding what the “best use” of prime, publicly owned, waterfront property in downtown Tampa is – not the Port or the City or any other public agency.

And that still does not work out the lawsuit between Liberty and the Port (Though this is interesting, especially regarding why the Port may have wanted that escrow that liberty refused to pay. )

Whatever the case, it is best if, for now, one just considers that a lost property.  Maybe, someday, it won’t be, but who knows when.

Downtown – Goings On

It seems that the Lightning’s owner is buying even more land downtown.

Jeff Vinik is taking another step forward in his drive to buy up and control land around the Forum, where his hockey team plays.

One of his real estate partnerships is now under contract to buy the last few residential properties in the immediate area, including three 100-year-old shotgun-style homes at the northwest corner of Cumberland Avenue and Nebraska Avenue, and a low-slung apartment building next door with four units.

The homes stick out as the last remaining residential holdouts between the Selmon Expressway and Channelside Drive in what’s now a sea of open-field parking where more than a few political players in town hope Vinik might usher in a baseball stadium.

Whether it is good or bad depends on what eventually ends up there.  Only time will tell.

And, in other news, the Le Meridien in the old Federal Courthouse is set to open June 16, which is nice.

Pasco – Road Saga

So the Pasco Elevated Toll Road is dead.  Fine (especially since the “private” road wanted public money).  The ULI recommended SR 54 be turned into a boulevard.  Even if that made any sense, it is doubtful it will happen any time soon.

A report Tuesday from staff showed that more than a dozen road projects were delayed or shelved in the past two years so that more funds could be spent on road maintenance, such as filling potholes.

Staff said that millions are necessary to keep up with growth. They gave commissioners an option of adding $5 million or $8 million more to the capital budget for roads, but urged that they back the $8 million request, which commissioners supported.

So there is no money and there is trouble just keeping up with what is already happening.  What will Pasco do?

Last September, commissioners backed down from raising gas taxes after angry residents complained at several meetings.

Four votes were needed to increase gas taxes from their current 7-cent level, but only three commissioners backed the increase.

As with last time, commissioners remain divided, with Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson voicing opposition to the tax while Ted Schrader, Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey supported the increase.

Mariano, however, said he might consider a combination of higher gas taxes and property taxes to pay for the work.

“I’m willing to look at it,” he said.

Schrader said he favors gas taxes because it’s a user-based fee, plus Pasco can benefit from having truckers and others from outside the area fill up here.

Apparently nothing now.

It is just another illustration of what bad planning and poor decision making does.  If Pasco does not want to raise the money needed for their infrastructure, fine. That is their choice, but don’t toss out pie in the sky ideas.

Pasco needs a real east-west road.  As we always said, the private plan may not be the idea they should go with but not doing anything will just lead to more problems.  IF Tampa Bay patterns hold true, those who today oppose the road will start complaining about how they can’t get around. And the great Tampa Bay transportation failures cycle will just keep going.

Find a solution.

List of the Week

It being summer, the choice of lists is often quite thin.  This week, we have lists of best and worst states to make a living.  You can see the methodology here.

The best states to make a living are as follows: Washington, followed by Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota, Virginia, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. (So, some of the usual suspects and a few others).

The worst states to make a living are: Hawaii, New York, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, New Jersey, and South Carolina.

At least Florida did not make the second list.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Belcher permalink
    June 13, 2014 11:56 AM

    Hillsborough County Commissioners are mad at Rick Homas. Translation: The county commissioners haven’t been offered a free trip on the tax payer’s dime but Mayor Buckhorn has. Why is Homas talking to Hagan? Mark Sharpe is (supposedly) the Chairman of the Board. The county paid Herb Marlow thousands of dollars to do something about public transportation. What it was, I really have no clue. I attended a couple of the public meetings conducted by Marlow. Essentially, it was a gab fest. Tampashpere could get a really interesting article if they were to obtain the report prepared by Marlowe (if there was one) since he was supposed to address the public transportation issue.

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