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Roundup 10-16-2015

October 16, 2015

Contents

Transportation – How to Please No One

West Tampa – Forwards and Backwards

Economic Development – New and Old

Transportation – Road Work

Ybor City – The City Tries Again

Transportation – A Little More PTC

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

— Latin American Gateway

— Destination Retail

List of the Week

_________________________________

Transportation – How to Please No One

There was an interesting article in the Times about how no one is happy with the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough affair.

Looks like advocates and opponents of Hillsborough County’s stalled transportation plan have finally found common ground:

They’re all furious. 

We are not really surprised.  The entire affair has been a process of equivocation rather than an expression of a vision.  But let’s look at the complaints.

Critics have questioned the Go Hillsborough initiative since Parsons Brinckerhoff was first brought on as a consulting firm last fall. While the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigates the selection of the firm, the opposition keeps hurling allegations that the process has been riddled with cronyism and back-door dealings.

Members of the Hillsborough County Tea Party say that even if the sheriff clears the county of any wrongdoing, that probably won’t assuage their growing list of concerns.

“I won’t be satisfied if that’s what happens,” said tea party activist Ken Roberts. “I don’t question (the sheriff’s) personal integrity … but these people all work for the county, and I think it calls into question their ability to render an unbiased opinion.”

The reality is that, regardless of the process of the awarding the contract, some people just do not want any improvement to transportation and will not be happy until any move to do so (other than maybe do a little road paving) just goes away – and they are not really hiding that fact.

Criticism levied at Go Hillsborough started almost immediately after the initiative was announced last fall. The plan was to conduct public outreach meetings to measure support for a sales tax that could fund transportation improvements and identify specific projects.

Tea party members and anti-rail activists, many of whom worked to defeat similar referendums in Hillsborough in 2010 and in Pinellas in 2014, called into question the legality of the Parsons contract and the integrity of the procurement process.

Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert said the sheriff’s investigation is “a year too late.” Calvert and her allies have not been content with previous attempts by the county to answer their questions.

“I went to the county clerk and I got no satisfaction,” Roberts said. “Same with the county attorney. I got a self-serving investigation. What other recourse do I have?”

Calvert wants to see an investigation that goes back to at least 2011 and that examines all forms of communications, including texts; that scrutinizes the entire Competitive Consultants Negotiations Act, the Florida statute used to select Parsons; that reviews the decision to have the sheriff lead the inquiry instead of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; and that accounts for every cent of spending during the process.

Even then, Calvert said, she isn’t sure if an independent investigation would satisfy her. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what would be enough.”

There is reason to criticize the outreach because the County should be able to do it and should have done it at the beginning of the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough process, but that is not what they are complaining about.  While they may talk about the process of awarding the consulting contract, no matter how good the investigation, it won’t matter because the issue for some is not the contract – that is an excuse – but rather the entire idea of fixing transportation.  Of course, those people are entirely within their rights to hold that position, but the awarding of the contract – right or wrong – is not the issue.  They just want to kill any changes, and the fact that no investigation will satisfy them is an indication of that. The County Commissioners who try to satisfy these critics are on a fool’s errand.  You cannot really do anything about transportation (especially a synchronized, coordinated system involving rail and proper planning) and satisfy these critics.  They are never going to support it.

Then there is the other side:

Supporters of a transportation sales tax focused their ire on the Hillsborough County Commission itself. Connect Tampa Bay executive director Kevin Thurman, a transit advocate, said it’s time for commissioners to stop playing defense and to show some leadership in addressing the county’s transportation needs.

“Commissioners need to take responsibility for going out to the public and explaining that nothing has gone wrong,” Thurman said, “and this plan will make their lives better.”

Well, the Commissioners do need to show leadership, though it is hard to say nothing has gone wrong.  The process has been too drawn out.  There has been more equivocation and fear than progress.  The proposals for proposals keep changing.  The Commissioners keep changing their mind about whether to do anything real or not. Different agencies seem to keep moving on their own rather than coordinating through a central process. Half cent?  Full cent? And, on top of that, the Commissioners walked right into the main strategy of opponents of fixing transportation – namely making everything look like insider politics.  Frankly, it would be hard to have a more ham-fisted process.

Nevertheless,

Others, like Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey, aren’t concerned with the allegations that have dominated the transportation conversation. Instead, the environmental activist would like to see the focus return to the plan itself.

That’s because after three years of planning and four weeks of controversy, Hillsborough County has yet to finalize a transportation plan to show voters. That plan is due to be made public on Nov. 5.

“It’s really disappointing to see Go Hillsborough running into such extreme difficulty,” Bailey said. “Our primary concern is with the product of the process.”

Exactly, which is the real point.  No matter how sloppy the process, it is still possible to have a good proposal. Unfortunately, as of now, the potential plan does not seem very good.  What has been put out publicly, though not the final plan, does not look like a real plan to fix transportation nor saving money.  You cannot really split the baby.  Either you ask for money for a real fix or do not ask for money.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said part of the problem stems from the ease with which opponents can organize, while backers — who range from homeowner associations to chambers of commerce to concerned citizens — lack a unified voice.

“What they really need to do is let commissioners know that this is very important to them,” Merrill said. “Because, mostly, all the board is hearing from mostly is this small band of folks that have been hammering away.”

First, it is unclear what a unified voice would be supporting.  The Commissioners themselves seem to have no political will to really fix anything and have not really presented a vision.  Second, there are many voices calling for fixes.  There is a small group that just wants to say no.  It is disingenuous to say that a lack of voice is the reason for the Commissioners’ equivocation.  (Unfortunately, the appearance is that many Commissioners are more concerned about a primary challenge than fixing transportation and moving this area forward.  Maybe, that is not accurate, but it is certainly how it appears.)

The bottom line is that if they want to rally support, the Commissioners have to give people something to rally around.  Right now, there is a giant muddle made worse by a bad decision (not necessarily illegal but politically problematic) on the consulting contract.  The Commission has to provide clarity, vision, and will.  Without out that, they will get little support.  And that has been the problem from the beginning.

And it is just another reason to look at the CSX lines.

West Tampa – Forwards and Backwards

This week the City rolled out a revised master plan for West Tampa/West River/North Boulevard Homes – it is really hard to know what to call places with all the rebranding, but so be it.  Here is the focus of the news coverage:

After a three-year partnership, The Tampa Housing Authority quietly parted ways with the lead consultant for its signature West River development and hired another firm to radically overhaul the design.

The authority hired St. Louis firm McCormack Baron Salazar in 2012 on a $350,000 contract to do initial planning for the $300 million commercial and residential development, viewed by city of Tampa leaders as the lynchpin for the revitalization of the area west of the Hillsborough River.

But after unveiling the plan in draft form last year, housing authority officials decided the firm’s ideas for the 120-acre site are too suburban and not suited for the urban boom in Tampa’s downtown.

The authority is now paying an additional $280,000 for a new consultant team to redo much of the master plan. Residents this week got a first look at a new plan that includes the addition of 800 more residential units above the 1,600 originally planned. The new plan will feature larger multi-family homes with built-in parking. 

We are all for making the development denser (though it is still not dense enough, see “Master Planning – Something in the West River” ).  We are glad they are moving away from a suburban design for the housing authority land.  That is good.

On the other hand the Housing Authority could easily have known (should have known) in 2012 that the consultant they hired was not probably not going to deliver a good plan. (See “West Tampa – A Cause for Concern”).  It is one more example of how local government wastes time and money on consultants – not because the cause is bad but because local officials seem to need a consultant report to validate every idea and often chase consultant’s reputations or local connections rather than quality.  And, while more units and urban are better, but we hope they do not look as horrible as this (with its awful surface parking) which is not urban at all:

From WTSP – click on picture for article

Moving on to the bigger picture, we looked at the nice maps in the revised plan, which you can find here.   Some of you may remember that the City is spending millions to redo the streets in the southern part of downtown to create a real grid for the Lightning owner’s project (see here and here) – partially because grids promote walkability and proper urban development, which you would think would be part of the goal for the “West River.”

Well, this was the revised plan map for the “West River” area:

From Revised West River Plan – click on picture for document

and this is the old one:

From the InVision Tampa document – click on picture for website

If you notice down at the bottom, the grid is maintained.  However, toward the north end the streets become wavy roads which terminate oddly.  It is bad design.  It does not draw people to the river.  It does not create a neighborhood, smooth flow of people and traffic, interaction or basically anything else but bad roads.  It also cuts much of the neighborhood to the west off from the river – or at least the houses on the river since the City allowed private development up the river (especially because almost no roads line up to get to the river). And the market on the river, which used to be around a plaza at the end of a road which opened up the river to the neighborhood, is off center, for no apparent reason, and blocking view corridors.

We are not really sure how that change happened (maybe just to appeal more to developers with big lots; while you need developers, let them design for the neighborhood we want not the other way around). It is just bad – as though the City learned nothing. Frankly, it is just bizarre and, hopefully, like the Housing Authority idea, will be made better.

Economic Development – New and Old

There was much coverage last week about the Tampa Bay Partnership picking a new CEO.

After an 11-month national search to find a new economic development leader to run the Tampa Bay Partnership, the best choice turns out to be right here.

Rick Homans, who has led the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. for nearly four years, on Monday was named the new CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, this metro area’s sole regional business economic development group.

Well, the choice is right here.  Whether it pans out in the best choice will be seen by results not anything said now.

His mission: to rejuvenate a 20-plus year organization with a strong history, but one that over time may have spread itself too wide and too thin. Homans wants to elevate the group’s role as a primary engine in efforts to raise this area’s regional economic bar.

Homans arrived in 2012 in Tampa after a six-plus-year stint in New Mexico as the state’s economic development director and, briefly, head of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. He excelled as CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, which helped recruit to the city and county a formidable string of corporate and job expansions from the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Amazon and Ashley Furniture, among others. Plenty more apparently are expected to soon be announced.

Hopefully, there are more forthcoming (and, once again, an Amazon warehouse, while providing jobs – which is good – is not really that big a deal for really changing the economy.  The fact it keeps popping up is not a reflection of the new CEO but it is a reflection of how economic development is considered here.)

In an interview, Homans, 59, said he is excited about his new role as head of the Tampa Bay Partnership because its regional emphasis offers broader opportunities to help unite the bay area. The group’s plan to become more politically active, with a political action committee and by working closely with the so-called Bay Area Legislative Delegation, presents a fresh challenge to bring together area business and elected leaders, Homans said.

Why shift from one economic development group to another in the same metro area?

Homans said he was struck by an Oct. 4 Tampa Bay Times editorial headlined “Failure to lead in Tampa Bay” that was critical of an overall weakness in regional political leadership in solving problems in area schools, police tactics and even dealing with the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.

“In many ways, Tampa Bay is on a roll in spite of the political leadership rather than because of it,” the Times editorial stated.

“That was very profound and very much on target,” Homans said. “There is a giant vacuum in Tampa Bay when it comes to uniting the business and political leadership in an effective way. I think that is the calling of the partnership.”

And that is definitely true.  Of course, the first step is to get the political officials on the same page with each other, which was an issue at the EDC just over a year ago. (see here and here)

Finding Tampa Bay’s one voice has proved elusive over the decades. But clearly there is a growing appreciation here — at least in theory — that metro areas able to speak as one, and sometimes also with one larger checkbook, can promote a common purpose and compete more effectively than individual counties or cities that try to go it alone.

Indeed, in theory.  In fact, what is appreciated is usually quite different – even within counties.  Hopefully, that can change.  While it is rare that simply rearranging the chairs causes real change, it can happen.  We hope it does.  As for political advocacy:

“Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas individually cannot compete with the Charlotte, Raleigh, New York, Boston and Chicago areas but as a region we can compete and win,” Sen. John Legg told the TBBJ last month.

The move to advocacy has raised questions from other economic development leaders about whether the efforts would be redundant or even competitive with organizations like the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce or the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, among others. Those organizations have been honing political action chops for several years now. There are issues large enough to support eight counties coming together, Lamb said, and it’s naive to suggest the partnership’s pivot to advocacy is redundant with established efforts by organizations like the Tampa Chamber.

The partnership formed a political action committee to support the initiative but has yet to fund it.

Acting regionally would sure help – though it does not seem that even the legislative delegation can really get together on anything other than maybe TBX, which has never been vetted for any popular support.  But, as we said, maybe that can change and maybe things will actually improve.

Finally,

Homans believes the Partnership can combine forces with Orlando as regional partners or collaborate with the Florida Chamber of Commerce to bring the Tampa Bay business community to the table as part of larger efforts in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.

First, we suggest studying Orlando which, in terms of regional power and unity, is eating our lunch.  We have nothing against partnering with Orlando as long as we make sure they do not lead and we follow on everything, which is how it usually works.  Consequently, we should probably get our act together before we partner with them.

So, as with many other things, there is hope (but not really excitement).  Once again, the real proof comes long after all the announcements and nice articles when we actually get results.  We shall see.

Transportation – Road Work

There was an interesting article in the Tribune this week on Tampa’s roads.

Many of the city’s roads are in poor condition, not inspected often enough and the city lacks a fair way of ensuring that urgent repairs are done in neighborhoods that need them most.

That was the conclusion of a new internal audit of the city’s pavement management program, which also found that an asphalt paving machine that cost taxpayers about $541,000 was in use less than half of available work hours.

The report gave the city’s roads a rating of 47 out of 100 and finds that only 9 percent of the city’s 2,800 paved miles of street had been inspected in the past three years, a frequency regarded as the best practice. Most road sections have not been inspected for six to nine years, the audit says.

Lax record keeping also led auditors to conclude they could not verify that officials had followed city rules in choosing which roads got fixed.

“Without an objective pavement management plan, roads needing rehabilitation may deteriorate to a point where full reconstruction is required,” the audit stated.

The report covers a 12-month period through the end of September 2014. That is just one month after Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced he was merging transportation and stormwater departments to improve service and coordination between the city offices doing the most street work.

Anecdotally, yes, the roads, especially outside South Tampa, are not very good. What is the City’s response?

Since then, many of the issues identified in the report have been addressed, said Jean Duncan, director of transportation and stormwater services.

Duncan said the audit’s rating of road conditions was inaccurately low because of the lack of inspections. In the past year, all city roads have been inspected and an inspection schedule was adopted that takes account of how much traffic each road carries. Practices have been put in place to improve record keeping too, Duncan said.

“It’s obvious we didn’t have the best documentation, which the audit clearly showed,” Duncan said. “We certainly have it in place now. We have a better explanation for how we’re spending our dollars.”

* * *

Road resurfacing is likely to take a back seat to work on intersection safety in 2016.

After allocating $12.4 million for road repairs in 2015, the city has allocated just $5 million for 2016. The money comes from about $10 million the city collects in gas taxes.

So everything has been fixed, except maybe the roads.  If the process is fixed, fine.  It will take times to fix the roads.  There is a lot of work going on in South Tampa.  Maybe some day that will get to other parts of the City where most of the people actually live.

Ybor City – The City Tries Again

It was reported that the City is trying once again to off load property in Ybor.

After nearly two years of trying, City Hall appears to have a buyer with a big plan for a high-profile corner in Ybor City.

The City Council next week is expected to consider a contract to sell a third of a block at E Seventh Avenue and Nick Nuccio Parkway for $792,000.

The buyer is a partnership between homebuilder Ariel Quintela and Darryl Shaw, the CEO of BluePearl Veterinary, a Tampa-based company with emergency animal hospitals and specialty veterinary clinics in 17 states.

Quintela and Shaw plan a $19.6 million project with 100 apartments, 8,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage with about 100 spaces.

* * *

That won’t be possible with the new project, McDonaugh said. The sales contract includes a no-assignment clause that would prevent the buyers from flipping the property after they buy it from the city, he said.

The contract also includes a provision that if the buyers don’t start construction within a year, then the city can buy the property back for the negotiated purchase price.

From the Times – click on picture for article

First, one of these investors has a number of investments in Ybor (a sign that the City does not need to sell the land), which is good.  Second, the initial roll out of the project presents something that looks pretty good. (though we reserve judgment). We also like the buy back provision.

There are just a couple of odd things: 1) the council vote is just a week after the potential sale is announced which provides almost no time to think about it (and once again gives the impression that everything happens in a black box) and 2) there still is no explanation of why the City should sell the land.  (As URBN Tampa Bay notes, there are other large projects slated for the west side of Ybor.   Clearly, there is a demand to develop private property.)

In the event, after all the excitement over the Altis Grand Central, normal service was resumed at City Hall:

Without discussion, the City Council approved the sale of a third of a block at the western gateway to the historic district for $792,000 — a price that’s midway between two appraisals commissioned by the city.

If it is such a good lot, maybe they should have asked for more

So, yes, it looks like a decent project that will add to the west side of Ybor.  Our major reservation at this point is that there are other sites on 7th Avenue on the west side of Ybor (the old Blue Ribbon site) that could be developed while leaving City land for a future public use.  We still do not understand the rush to get rid of public land (and avoid any discussion of it), especially when there is no need to do so.

Transportation – A Little More PTC

There was a rather amusing article about the PTC this week in the Times.   We are not going to cover it extensively but will note this.  The article discusses how some cab companies are not happy that the PTC is no longer ticketing rideshare drivers and various other silly things the PTC did.  This is a PTC board member’s explanation:

Taking a step back from legal fights and issuing citations could build more support for the agency in Tallahassee, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

“This was heading toward a public relations nightmare,” he said. “We then run a greater risk of failing in Tallahassee and possibly this agency being dissolved, and that puts this industry and public in even greater peril.”

Yes, it was a public relations disaster because it is horrible policy.  On the other hand, no one is in greater peril without the PTC.  Everywhere else survives fine without an added, silly layer of bureaucracy.  It is just old Florida at its worst.  It really needs to go.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

— Latin American Gateway

This week, Delta announced some flight changes at Orlando:

DELTA from 21FEB16 is increasing operational frequencies on Orlando – Sao Paulo route, as it plans to operate this route on daily basis, instead of 4 times a week. Reservation for the new flights opened this past weekend.

Orlando already has flights to Brazil, as well as flights to a number of other Latin American cities. Meanwhile, we noticed that the Copa flights to Tampa are now using an Embraer jet rather than a 737.  The new jet is smaller.  We are not sure why.

We know the airport staff is working hard (and that passenger counts are going up, especially international passengers), so it is not a question there.  However, regardless of the rhetoric, the quest to be “the” gateway to Latin America does not seem to be where it should be.

— Destination Retail

Speaking of hype, time to revisit Bass Pro Shops and the money the County gave for “destination retail.” (We are not going to replay the entire debate and all the silly things about what great economic development it would be.) The Brandon store, right off I-75 recently opened, which is fine.  What was not really covered was this, far down in an article about the new mall in Sarasota from the Times last week:

Benderson owns a slew of retail power centers all around the mall. With anchoring brands like Home Depot, Fresh Market, SuperTarget and BJ’s Wholesale, the retail corridor there looks a lot like the bustling Mall at Millennia community and tourist shopping destination in Orlando.

And more retail is coming, Chait said. Benderson hopes to add more shopping centers and a movie theater soon. Bass Pro Shops says it’s going to open a store near the highway one exit away.

More specifically:

SARASOTA, Fla. –  Bass Pro Shops, an outdoor retailer specializing in hunting, fishing, camping and other related outdoor gear, is proud to announce plans for a new store in Sarasota County, Florida.  The Bass Pro Shops retail attraction will be located on the northeast quadrant of Interstate 75 and Fruitville Road.  The new 80,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outpost store will be the primary anchor for the new 260,000-square-foot, planned mixed-use Fruitville Commons development.

Ok, so it is smaller than the one in Brandon, but it is only 45 minutes away (per google maps).  This was entirely predictable when the Bass Pro vote was taken.  Once again, we have nothing against bass Pro Shops.  We do have something against giving them limited County funds.  Now, as with the “West River” swerve-fest, the real question is whether anyone has learned anything?

List of the Week

Our list this week was already noted in the Business Journal.  It is Wallethub’s 2015’s Best and Worst Foodie Cities for Your Wallet (though we are not completely sure what that means).  You can see the methodology here.

The Business Journal covered the list like this:The food scene in the Tampa Bay area has been growing and evolving for years, and according to a recent WalletHub analysis, Tampa is one of the most affordable “foodie” scenes in the country.

Factoring in 18 metrics including cost of groceries, number of restaurants per capita, craft breweries and more, Tampa ranked No. 8 on the WalletHub list.

Ok.  So the other cities in the top 10 must be other smaller foodie markets, right? The top 10 are: Portland, Orlando, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Cincinnati, Santa Rosa (CA), Tampa, Rochester (NY), and Miami.

That is a number of Florida cities in the top 10.  Why is that?  Looking at the methodology, first, prices are probably lower in Florida.  Second, there are a lot of restaurants (especially with the tourists to serve), which is a heavily weighted category.  Strangely, the methodology for a “foodie” list that does not distinguish between chains and unique, interesting restaurants, but there it is.  The same is true for coffee shops, ice cream/yogurt shops, grocery stores, etc.

In any event, it is nice that we have a growing foodie scene – especially what has developed organically in Seminole Heights.  It may be very decently priced.  We look forward to it developing into a real destination.

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