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Roundup 9-22-2017

September 22, 2017


A Thought About Hurricanes and Planning

Downtown/Channel District – USF Med School

Downtown – (Law)Suits

Tampa Heights – Moving Forward

– Some Money

— Food Halls

Parks and Taxation, Cont

Economic Development – What’s With the Schools?

Port – Dig

Rays/Tourism – Tourists, Taxes, and Talking

—  A Little More on Tourism

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the State

Lists of the Week


A Thought About Hurricanes and Planning

As everyone who lives here knows, we were very lucky with Hurricane Irma. And many people came together admirably to help others in the community (though why, in many areas, it is takes so long to even start collecting yard waste is a mystery.)  We usually are pretty lucky, and that is good for us.  Because we are lucky, the damage is not as bad as some other places.  One thing that bothers us is that, while much is done to fix what gets damaged, little seems to be done to limit the potential for damage in the first place.

As noted in a number of articles, including one in the Washington Post, that was sent to us by numerous people, the Tampa Bay area is incredibly vulnerable to hurricanes and other weather.  We don’t need to tell you that our rivers rise quite often; we have areas that seem to flood every year; in areas, our streets often flood, including in rain; and we seem to have an issue with sewers, as well.

We get that people want to live near the water and that is unlikely to change and we get that we will never hurricane-proof this area, but that does not mean things can’t be done. Here is a little from a recent article on Houston after Harvey:

The size of tropical storm Harvey – some experts estimate it has already dumped 12tn gallons of rain in Houston and south Texas – is unusual. But there is no single reason for the extent of the impact it has had at street level.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Sam Brody, a professor in the department of marine sciences at Texas A&M University. “It’s a very low-lying coastal plain, with clay-based soils that do not drain very well. The city is subject to very heavy rainfall, as well as flooding from tidal events.

“You take that flood-risk landscape and you put 6 million people on top, with prolific amount of pavement and roadways and a lack of collective and regional thinking about what that does to the natural drainage of that landscape, and you end up with disasters.”

Brody – who himself has been trapped in his western Houston home for the past three days – said Houston’s rapid expansion is part of the problem. The city has added hundreds of square miles of pavement and vastly increased its housing stock, but the flooding infrastructure has, in some areas, not kept pace.

“Many neighborhoods are still using roadside ditches as drainage. It’s like the Middle Ages almost,” Brody said.

Aside from the clay soil, the same can basically be said for this area, especially the pave and build, sprawl-based policies and lack of regional thinking.  While we may have more natural drainage through our soil, excessive paving reduces that advantage – and it is limited anyway.  Otherwise, we are more vulnerable.

There are steps we can take such as limiting sprawl, building more and better drainage and flood mitigation systems (including buying up some vulnerable areas to get people out of them and leaving the land for drainage), and burying power lines where possible. We do not have a comprehensive list, but it does not seem like anyone is creating a comprehensive list, which is a problem. And we get that it will take time and money but that does not mean we should not start or make things worse. Because, regardless of Indian mounds (just note the last big hurricane here was after the mounds were already there), the reality is basically this:

“I have no doubt that we will get hit,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (D), who warned as Irma approached that his city was about to get punched in the face. “We’re not protected. We’re no more vulnerable than anyone else in the state of Florida. We’ve just had the good fortune of not having been hit, but there’s nothing we do or don’t do that’s going to stop that.”

And we are not going to get into climate change because we don’t need to.  With or without climate change, the rain and storms are still going to come, and we should be doing things differently to protect our area.  We will never be able to make it entirely secure, but that does not mean we have to make our natural vulnerability worse.

We got lucky again which is great, but no one can guarantee that will always be the case.  Quite the opposite. What are we going to do about it?

Downtown/Channel District – USF Med School

While it has been under construction for a little while now (and documented with a previously mentioned webcam), officially:

Dozens of workers in hard hats and boots were busy at work at the corner of South Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive Wednesday morning, signaling the start of construction on the University of South Florida’s new Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute.

From USF – click on picture for article

We hope it is a nice as it is held out to be. It is good to get something in Water Street project going.  We hope there is a lot mor of this kind of news soon.

Of course, you should note this:

The University of South Florida will ask lawmakers for an additional $21 million to complete funding for its downtown Tampa medical school and heart institute.

The state has already provided $91 million, including $12 million in construction funds in the current budget, for the Morsani College of Medicine and USF Heart Institute.

We assume they will get the money, but with the legislature, you never know.

Downtown – (Law)Suits

In the last few weeks there has been what we consider annoying news about the proposed Riverwalk Tower, which was supposed to reveal renderings by September, though we have seen nothing yet.

According to a lawsuit filed this month in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Riverwalk Tower Investment – Intown LLC was to handle the residential portion of the tower while Larry Feldman’s Feldman Equities was in charge of the office component. Intown said problems began when a potential lender hired broker Darren Hornig to evaluate the project.

“Hornig concluded in early 2017 that Riverwalk Tower needed more residential units and less office space in light of the lack of demand for office space in downtown Tampa,” the suit says. “That recommendation displeased Feldman.”

The suit claims that Feldman then took over the residential part of the project and told others that he would consult with Greg Minder, Intown’s manager, but would make the day-to-day and final decisions himself. As a result of Feldman’s efforts to “push out Minder,” the suit says, the firm chosen to market the tower, Smith & Associates, left or was terminated by Feldman.

Feldman has “no experience in residential development and without such experience, Riverwalk Tower will fail or at the very least be far less successful than if Intown was properly include in the project,” says the suit. It seeks damage and a declaration that Feldman Equities had no right to relieve Intown of day-to-day responsibilities for the residential component.

Feldman said Tuesday that litigation in large projects is not unusual. “This particular suit is not going to deter us from moving forward on the project,” he said. “The plaintiff and principal behind the suit, Greg Minder, owns nothing and invested nothing in the project, so this is a dispute over a letter of intent (to work together).” Minder, who developed Tampa’s Skypoint condo tower, could not be reached for comment.

As is to be expected, this week:

Feldman Equities LLC has moved to dismiss a residential developer’s lawsuit over a 53-story mixed-use tower proposed in downtown Tampa.

As is our practice, we are not going to comment about the merits of lawsuits, especially when we have no information regarding the facts.  However, as people who want to see Tampa grow and develop, we will say the whole thing is annoying.  We would like to get this project moving – or at least see what is actually proposed in some detail.  At least Water Street seems to be moving.

Tampa Heights – Moving Forward

– Some Money

There was news about the Heights, a project which is starting to take shape on the river:

The Tampa-based Heights Community Development District got a financial boost from a $21.5 million tax-exempt bond issue to fund the waterfront community being built along the Hillsborough River just north of downtown Tampa. Proceeds from the bond issue are expected to used for new roads, sidewalks, the Tampa Riverwalk and parking garages and other infrastructure work associated with the 43-acre development.

Which is fine, though the parking garages in the plan risk being a little too prominent for our taste (though the Pearl’s concealing of its parking garage makes us a bit more optimistic.)

The center of project is the historic Armature Works building, which is being transformed into the Heights Public Market, event hall, and co-working space and is due to open in November.

We look forward to finally seeing it.  Also, it seems the Pearl should also be opening soon.

— Food Halls

Speaking of Tampa Heights,

The Hall on Franklin is open in Tampa Heights, offering everything from liege waffles to poke bowls under one roof.

Here’s their website. And it looks like this:

From the Times – click on picture for article

From the Times – click on picture for article

We have been to other food halls in other cities, and, while they tended to be bigger, this one is on the upper end of nice environments. (We’ll have to see about the true size and environment at Armature Works). We hope it is successful and really gets the redevelopment of the Franklin Corridor north of 275 going.  It is a great spot with some very nice older buildings and land for urban infill.  Check it out.

Parks and Taxation, Cont

This week, (which appears to be local tax increase season. see here , here, and here), the City Council rolled back the Mayor’s proposed tax increase a bit.

The City Council voted 4-3 Monday night to scale back Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s proposed property tax increase for 2018.

Buckhorn originally proposed a tax rate that would have added $140 to the city tax bill of a homeowner who lives in a house with the average assessment of $166,579.

But that proved to be too much for most council members, who tend to support the mayor’s proposed spending.

As approved Monday night, the city’s tax rate would rise from the current $5.73 to about $6.33 in tax per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would add $105 to the tax bill of a homeowner with an average home.

Four Councilmembers voted for the revised tax because the City has to pay its bills.  Three voted against it.

But council members Harry Cohen, Guido Maniscalco and Mike Suarez voted against the proposal.

Cohen said he thought the city could scale back the proposed tax increase even further. Buckhorn’s original proposal is too much to ask of property owners who have seen the city raise stormwater improvement fees. Officials should consider cuts in spending, he said, starting with a proposed upgrade for the City Council chambers that he said isn’t needed.

Maniscalco said he was struggling because he had supported two separate increases in drainage improvement fees, plus using $15 million from the BP settlement to help pay for a $35 million makeover at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

But, he said, “never was it said, after we do all this, that we have to do a (property tax) increase.”

That is more along the line of the Chamber of Commerce’s stance:

“We recognize the challenges facing the city resulting from previous debts but feel a tax increase to pay for them sets a dangerous precedent,” Rohrlack said.

Thus, after “considerable review,” chamber chairman Mike Griffin said in a statement that “we do not agree that there is sufficient justification for the proposed tax increase on residents and businesses.”

“We hope that City Council and Mayor Buckhorn will use their upcoming deliberations to find a solution to our city’s debt challenges that does not raise taxes on residents and businesses and works to maintain our designation as one of the most affordable cities in not only the state but also the country,” he added.

We get both views and, given what has already happened with budgeting, we are not going to complain too loudly about this year.  However, this was all foreseeable.  First, the outstanding debt and repayment schedule should have been addressed early and in a straight-forward, transparent way.

Second, as we noted before, the park spending, especially Julian Lane Riverfront Park was not done in the best way.  Even the Times editorial board this week said so, sort of, in an editorial on the tax increase:

The city has no choice but to spend money to repay the outstanding debt. While it spent too much on the remake of Riverfront Park, at $35 million, that decision has been made. . .  

Of course, in 2016, while noting that the park project was pretty expensive and maybe the cost should be reduced (maybe), gave pretty solid support for the park project here. The Tribune had a more supportive editorial here which told us [ed.  We have made a correction here.  Originally, we thought the Tribune editorial was after the Tribune/Times merger and was a Times editorial and treated it as such.  We were off by a few weeks.  The editorial was a Tribune editorial and that has been made clear.  Our apologies]:

The mayor plans to use funds from the half-cent Community Investment Tax and $15 million of the $20 million the city received in BP settlement funds for lost business during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Councilman Charlie Miranda, ever cautious with tax dollars, doesn’t like the plan to bond CIT funds. Miranda would prefer to see the project proceed in stages, a reasonable approach.

The mayor says such bonding is customary for major capital projects, and the CIT revenue provides a reliable revenue stream and won’t put any extra burden on city residents.

Well . . .

So where are we?

However, there is only one more public hearing set for next Thursday before the council passes the budget. Under the city charter, the council could vote to reduce the millage increase next week.

At this point, decisions have been made about spending and the City has debts it has to pay so it have to get a way to pay them.   But, once again, the reality is that, with more planning, better communication, and more real oversight from both the City Council and the media, this could all have been avoided, but that is a major weakness of the Imperial Mayor form of government.  And, regardless of the outcome, none of this builds confidence. 

Economic Development – What’s With the Schools?

Which brings us to schools.  While curriculum and other such controversies are not in the scope this blog, economic development is, and, as we have noted before, schools are an integral part of economic development. We have noted that Hillsborough County does not seem to have enough money for routine maintenance of schools, such as air conditioning, which is a problem as schools.  This week, due to a very sad fire, we learned even more:

Lee Elementary School had a world studies magnet program and a century-old brick building topped with a graceful cupola. Inside and out, it was the pride of Tampa Heights.

But it didn’t have fire sprinklers. And it wasn’t alone.

The Hillsborough County Public Schools use fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, emergency lights and flashing strobes to protect children in case of a fire.

Safety inspections happen yearly and “fire drills are held every month school is in session,” Grayson Kamm, the district’s community relations and media officer, said Thursday. “All of our schools are up to fire code.”

In some cases, when an older school is undergoing multiple major renovations, a sprinkler system is added.

But that never happened at Lee. Nor do sprinklers exist at most district schools, according to a list provided by the district, which showed 87 out of more than 200 schools have them.

Interesting.  How do they explain that?

“Sprinklers really protect property and not people,” Kamm said, emphasizing that the other equipment and practices are far more important.

That’s a theory we’d rather not test. Sprinklers can put out or limit a fire in a building full of kids.  Yes, other things are also important, but that does not reduce the importance of sprinklers. (See Grenfell Tower and sprinklers. here and here)

It is all part of a bigger issue – lack of money. From the Times on August 30:

Unlike other large districts, Hillsborough is seeking to pay its bills without the help of a voter-approved sales tax. Eakins and board leaders, while not addressing the issue Tuesday, have said in the past that they want to restore confidence in the schools before they ask voters for more money.

But that’s easier said than done in a district that has been hit with one controversy after another since the era of open warfare between board members and the prior superintendent, MaryEllen Elia. Most recently, parents and teachers have complained about failing school air conditioners. At Tuesday’s meeting, there was also a litany of parent complaints about pedestrian safety, now that the district has cut busing near the schools to save $3.5 million a year.

The nation’s eighth-largest school district, Hillsborough boasts award-winning magnet schools and a growing number of students who distinguish themselves in International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and National Merit Scholar competitions.

But it also far exceeds all other Florida districts in the number of schools on a state list based on low elementary reading scores. And, like a lot of urban districts, it is losing many students to privately run charter schools.

Eakins, in addition to cost-cutting measures that will touch on energy use and employee insurance as the size of the workforce decreases, stressed the need to market the district-run schools.

That leads to this on September 5:

Hillsborough County school officials say they have little choice but to seek voter approval for a sales tax that would help rebuild a system plagued by broken air conditioners, leaking roofs and other problems caused by years of delayed maintenance.

But that won’t happen, they said, without a campaign that highlights the good they do and the importance of a strong school system.

* * *

Chris Farkas, the district’s chief operating officer, said “it’s hard to build confidence when you send your kid to school and there’s no AC in the school. It’s hard to build confidence in your employees when they don’t have AC in the classroom.”

While not committing to a referendum, Eakins said the time has come “to get creative,” and that district leaders need to be “talking to our community on a regular basis” over the next 12 to 18 months.

While there is some blame in the present school governance, we are not going to blame the present administration for all the issues that obviously began long before and were ignored by previous administrations.  And we agree, getting a tax increase may be difficult, especially with the politics presently around schools. (note that this week the School Board passed a budget for this year.)

In all honesty, this circumstance should not be surprising. What we have with schools, is a failure to deal with issues as they arose, deferring the problem until a crisis point which is what we have with transportation, planning, storm water, and a host of other issues. (And the money issue is also a failure of impact fees to truly reflect the cost of development. And there is the issue of state funding, but, if that is such an issue, where is the legislative delegation?  They can’t get money to fix fire hazards?)

It is quite a mess, especially if you are trying to attract a major business – say Amazon – here.

Port – Dig

There was news from the Port regarding the Big Bend Channel expansion project they have been working on.

Port Tampa Bay approved a public-private partnership agreement with four other entities to divvy up who will pay for a $60 million widening and extension of the Big Bend Channel.

The strategic partners include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Tampa Electric Co. and Mosaic Co., a global fertilizer company which is one of port’s largest tenants along with Tampa Electric. The port’s board of commissioners unanimously approved the participation agreement at a monthly meeting on Tuesday.

We are all for such deals if they bring more business at less public investment.  Hopefully, this will.

Separately, Port Tampa Bay on Tuesday also unanimously approved the use of a portion of $4.2 million in Florida Seaports Transportation and Economic Development Council (FSTED) funds to improve two existing berths. The port will pay more than half of the reconstruction costs with the other portion coming from FSTED funds and state grants. The update to Berth 219 will cost $8.6 million and Berth 3 is estimated at $6.3 million.

Which is fine.  Now, we need ships to use the channel.  Regardless, it is good for the Port to be focused on acting as a port rather than a real estate development company.  We need much more of that.

Rays/Tourism – Tourists, Taxes, and Talking

There was some news about the Rays stadium issue.  First, despite the hurricane, Hillsborough is still likely to hit the numbers necessary to qualify for another percentage point on the tourist tax:

Between Sept. 3 and Sept. 9, county hotels actually saw a 10 percent increase in revenue over the same period last year, according to Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism promotion agency for Hillsborough.

And when the numbers are tallied, Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada doesn’t believe Irma’s pass through the bay area will have much of an impact on tourist development taxes collected on each night’s stay at a hotel.

* * *

Hillsborough County is chasing the elusive distinction of a Florida “high tourism impact” county, meaning it generated $600 million of revenue in a calendar year at hotels, motels and other short-term rentals. Counties that pass the threshold can increase the tourist development tax, often called the room or bed tax, from 5 cents on every dollar spent on hotel stays to 6 cents.

Some local officials have eyed the sixth cent as one potential way to pay for a Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Tampa. Those who want to use the room tax for a stadium are quick to point out it is primarily paid by tourists, unlike property or sales taxes. But the tax is off the table if the county doesn’t first pass the $600 million mark.

Whether the tourist tax gets increased or not, hitting the threshold number would be good anyway. Regarding a stadium, it is only relevant if the stadium is to be built in Hillsborough.  And about that, the former Rays manager, now free to speak his mind, has some thoughts, from the Times:

Though some of Maddon’s former Rays bosses were unhappy with how he left, opting out of the final year of his contract, he did some bidding for them Tuesday, coming out strong for the need for a new stadium, and on the Tampa side.

“I think a more vibrant building that fans can get to more readily would be very important moving it forward,” he said.

“Quite frankly, when I worked here I couldn’t say that because people did not want to hear that. People would get upset with me because I said that. But it’s true. Those who argue against it, that’s just a bad argument.

“You need a better facility. You need a facility that’s more readily available to the general population when they get off from work. They need a place that’s more baseball oriented. You don’t need an erector set. You don’t need stuff hanging from the ceiling. It was a great place. And it’s a great place to start. For this organization to really get to where they want to on an annual basis, you need a better building in a better spot.”

We saw his comments and he was a bit more emphatic about being in Tampa, to wit:

From the Twitter account of Ryan Bass of WTSP – click on quote for Twitter

Yes, he’s a baseball guy talking about getting something for baseball.  On the other hand, we think that is all pretty obvious, but it is good to have someone who really has to deal with it make the point. We shall see what happens.

—  A Little More on Tourism

Since we are talking tourism, this is a good place for this:

A record-breaking, 22.6 million people who visited Tampa and Hillsborough County in 2016 pumped nearly $6 billion into the economy, according to a study commissioned by Visit Tampa Bay. The visitors supported about 50,000 jobs and contributed $369 million in state and local taxes.

* * *

Almost 500,000 international visitors, the smallest portion of the sector, spend on average of $1,327 per person on their trips for a total of $640.8 million.

We are inherently skeptical of economic impact studies commissioned by organizations with a vested interest in showing big impacts.  Nevertheless, regardless of exact numbers tourism is definitely an important aspect of our economy.

Looking at the purported numbers in the study, one interesting number is that international visitors, accounting for roughly 2% of visitors according to the article, accounted for roughly 10.5% of the money.  (We realize that we are going off rough numbers in the article and that “spending” is not necessarily the same as “pump(ing)” money into the economy, but any reasonable ambiguity in the numbers would tend to mean the international visitors were responsible for a larger percentage.)  Regardless of the complete veracity of the numbers, international visitors’ impact is proportionately greater than other tourists. We know that not all of them come on flights to the airport, but it just shows another reason international flights are important.  More please.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the State

While our local transportation system is messy and its future unclear and Brightline is moving to connect Orlando and Miami there was other news:

The Hyperloop route proposed for Miami to Orlando — estimated to take just 26 minutes! — is among the 10 worldwide winners in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

It’s one of just four winning routes in the United States, joining Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh, Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo, and Dallas-Laredo-Houston.

Spread across three continents and five countries, these 11 connections were identified as the strongest Hyperloop routes in the world. Back in April, the Miami-to-Orlando route was announced as one of 11 finalists in the U.S. Now the route joins the others as experts closely follow each’s commercial viability.

* * *

The Hyperloop One Global Challenge began in May 2016 and, according to Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd, their goal is to implement “three full-scale systems operating by 2021.”

We have no idea if Hyperloop is even a viable technology, however, it is just another case of being on the outside looking in for potential transportation connections and planning in our state.

Lists of the Week

This week, we present tangentially connected lists that tell us a lot about lists.  First, we have Apartment List’s Top Metros for Millennials.

What U.S. metros are the best for millennials?

To answer that question, Apartment List graded 75 top U.S. metros in three categories — jobs, affordability and livability — and ranked them, based on their scores.

Many metros score high in one or two categories, but few metros offer the ideal mix of a strong job market, affordable rent and home prices and high livability scores. 

You can see more details on their methodology on the website. Here is their list: Pittsburgh, Provo, Madison, San Antonio, Columbus, Charleston (SC), Omaha, OKC, Houston, and Minneapolis.

Ok, standard enough.  But then we found Money’s Best Places to Live. This is much more broad-based with national lists, regional lists, and more, and seems to be weighted to small towns near big cities.  The really interesting thing is, even when you get to the regional lists, they only include one Florida city – St. Augustine.

We are not really buying into either list, but it is interesting how little respect Florida gets overall.

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