Orlando officials determined Citrus Bowl refit for MLS would be too pricey, but didn’t write it down

Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards, one of two members of that body to vote against last fall’s approval of $20 million in county money toward a new stadium for Orlando City S.C., has charged MLS with hoodwinking local officials into believing that a soccer-only stadium was the only way to get a team:

Edwards said he’s learning other cities are getting many options for new or rebuilt stadiums to attract soccer teams.

Edwards said that he’s never seen a study to prove a newly overhauled Citrus Bowl could not handle pro soccer.

“I think we were misled by Major League Soccer,” Edwards said. “I think, [from] the body language I’m getting from other commissioners, I think they were told the same thing.”

The prompt for Edwards’ statements is, no doubt, the fact that Atlanta and New York are now both getting new MLS teams that will play in facilities built for other sports. This has to create some buyers’ remorse for Orlando officials, though in this case, Edwards seems to have been pre-remorsed.

Edwards yesterday also demanded that local officials provide proof that redoing the Citrus Bowl for soccer would have been a more expensive option than building anew. The answer: We know it’s true, but we didn’t write it down:

“There isn’t any documentation,” said Heather Fagan, deputy chief of staff at Orlando City Hall. “Having said that, it was more than just ‘chatting over coffee.’

“We asked our architects working on the Citrus Bowl project to evaluate incorporating MLS-requirements into the Citrus Bowl reconstruction. The architects came back and informed us it would be more cost-prohibitive then building a new stadium.”

And from County Mayor Teresa Jacobs:

Jacobs said she relied on county staff to analyze other MLS venues to determine if a Citrus Bowl retrofit could accommodate a pro soccer team, and they deemed it too costly. That appraisal, Jacobs said, “made walking around sense,” though she now would prefer if the Citrus Bowl retrofit estimates were documented.

So let me get this straight: You sent your staff to calculate how much it would cost to refit the Citrus Bowl for soccer, and they just said “a lot” and you left it at that? I know what I want my next job to be: Florida government economist. I bet I wouldn’t even have to crack open my copy of Excel.

Orlando approves $84m soccer stadium plan, again

The Orlando city council, which last October unanimously approved an $84 million stadium for the Orlando City Soccer Club that will be paid for about half with public money, approved it again yesterday, because why the heck not?

Yesterday’s vote was apparently on the actual construction and operations agreement, which I can’t find anywhere online, so no clue whether there are any surprises in it. Orlando City S.C. is still looking to get an additional $30 million in state tax kickbacks, which would kick the total stadium cost to $114 million, $70 million of it public dollars.

Orlando City is set to begin play as an MLS expansion team starting in 2015, but the stadium won’t be finished until 2016, meaning the team will likely play its opening season at the Citrus Bowl. The stadium design — which should be interesting, given that even $114 million is pretty cheap for an 18,000-seat soccer stadium — will be revealed later this month, not that that stopped one local TV station from using a rendering of what the stadium almost certainly won’t look like.

Florida senate: Fine, evaluate stadium projects, just don’t let us actually vote on them

The Florida state house may be looking at ways to force stadium subsidies to actually go through a standardized evaluation process, but the state senate isn’t going to let that get in the way of projects sailing through quickly: Senate leaders say they’re fine with the house bill, so long as the legislature doesn’t then have to vote on each project:

“As soon as we set the parameters and setting the methodology for getting this done, there’s no reason for it to come back to the Legislature,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who is pushing a package to provide incentives for the Orlando City Soccer stadium planned for downtown.

The impetus for this amendment is apparently to enable the Orlando City Soccer Club‘s stadium plan to get passed quickly this summer (Altamonte Springs is an Orlando suburb), but it could have significant consequences for other sports projects as well: If it’s just a matter of the state Department of Economic Opportunity checking off some boxes on a tax-break application, there wouldn’t be any public process at all for vetting subsidy requests. This seems like a way huger deal than the Orlando Sentinel is making of it, but maybe I’m misunderstanding the proposal — or maybe it’s just because it’s an Orlando paper reporting on it, so they’re not going to question their local legislators’ pet project too hard.

Florida bill to limit stadium subsidies could end up encouraging more expensive projects

The Florida state bill to rank sports subsidy requests finally made it to committee yesterday (house economic affairs, if you’re scoring at home), and there are a few more details that hadn’t emerged previously:

  • Only projects costing $100 million or more would be eligible, and at least half the project’s funding must be from private sources. Spring training facilities are explicitly ruled out.
  • The bill would set aside $12 million a year in sales tax rebates, enough for six projects (at $2 million a year apiece), but that could later be expanded.
  • Each project must create a “positive return on the state’s investment,” though what this means is left undefined. Toward this end, each application must include “an independent analysis prepared by a certified public accountant” of how much in new sales taxes will be generated by the project. If the sales tax numbers don’t come in as promised within five years, the team would have to repay the subsidy, with a 5% penalty.

(PDF of the bill is here.)

There’s some good here, though there’s also a lot that makes it seem like the Florida legislature has just landed on this planet and discovered that stadium subsidies are a thing. (“Hey, guys, we need some kind of economic analysis. I know, let’s make sure a CPA does it! They’ll totally be qualified to calculate the sales tax substitution effect!”) The requirement that the projects must be half privately funded is somewhat promising, but also something that team owners can easily get around by, say, putting up half the up-front money and then getting repaid by public operating subsidies. At least the $100 million minimum is something that shouldn’t lend itself to any unintended consequences—

[Orlando] is planning an $85 million soccer-only stadium downtown, but could add more amenities with the extra state dollars boosting the project over the $100 million requirement.


Well, anyway, at least it looks like spring training stadiums would get ruled out for state aid

Florida governor Rick Scott used the Tigertown complex as the backdrop to announce a proposal to help cities in his state fund projects for Spring Training facilities to keep teams in the Grapefruit League.

The proposal seeks to establish a $5 million annual fund from which the state would work to match local government funding. The money would be tied specifically to Spring Training facilities.


Florida bill proposes ranking system for which teams get to glom onto tax subsidies first

Hey, remember a few weeks ago when Florida house speaker Will Weatherford announced that he wanted an actual process for deciding which sports teams should get state tax breaks, instead of the time-honored local custom of just throwing all the money in the air and letting team owners stuff whatever they could grab into their shirts? There’s an actual bill now, sponsored by state senator Jack Latvala, and here’s its list of criteria, as related by the Tampa Tribune:

  • The kinds of “signature events” — like Super Bowls, all-star games or racing championships — the facility might attract.
  •  The likely boost in ticket sales and attendance the project would create.
  •  The likelihood of attracting out-of-state visitors.
  •  How long a team has been in the state.
  •  Whether the new or renovated stadium could host a variety of sporting or other events.
  • The ranking process also would give extra points to teams that can put up half or more of the total project funds.

So that, um, a start, I guess? It’s arguably a pretty stupid start — why teams that have been in the state longer should get dibs is unclear, and there’s tons of evidence that “signature events” are essentially worthless to local economies — especially compared to a more reasonable metric like, say, whether a project would actually create a net return on investment for the state. And it sounds like this is just an attempt to create a ranking system for who’d be allowed to dip their beaks first into the state’s annual funding pool (which would be set at $13 million a year), which negates the possibility of deciding that there aren’t $13 million a year of projects worth funding at all.

Still, at least mediocre criteria are criteria, and they can always be tweaked later if (okay, when) they prove to be inadequate and ridiculously easy for team owners to game. Not that I really expect the Florida state legislature to pass bills twice in my lifetime putting more strings on sports subsidies, but in an infinite universe, anything is possible.

Florida house speaker: No new sales tax “checks” for stadiums this year

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who said earlier this week that he’d be introducing a bill to require sports teams to show they actually have a reason to ask for sales-tax kickbacks, upped the ante slightly yesterday by declaring that he doesn’t intend on approving any sports subsidies this year at all:

“Our focus right now is on a process that treats everyone equitably and not writing any checks,” Weatherford said during an interview with The News Service of Florida in his Capitol office.

Currently, the state of Florida pays $2 million a year to the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Heat, and Orlando Magic in exchange for the teams doing the state the favor of existing. (The Miami Marlins got left off this list after getting the $2 million a year break for their previous stadium, but did get everything else they wanted, so no complaining.) Right now the Orlando City Soccer Club, David Beckham’s as-yet-unnamed Miami MLS expansion team, and the Daytona International Speedway are all lining up to ask for sales-tax rebates as well, but it sounds like they’re going to have to wait — until next year, anyway, when Weatherford will, at the ripe old age of 35, be term-limited out of office. If Weatherford has his way, by then there will be new laws requiring team owners to “go through the process with the Department of Economic Opportunity just like everybody else does that wants to create jobs in Florida” to prove that their projects will provide a return on the state’s investment, though it remains to be seen whether he has a chance in hell of getting it through the state senate, which has historically been much more lenient about this kind of thing.

Florida legislature considers requiring sports teams to have actual reasons to ask for state money

So as we covered yesterday, David Beckham wants $2 million a year in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida for his new Miami MLS franchise, because all the other teams are getting them and tax rebates aren’t really money, right? Which is, admittedly, how it normally works in Florida, except that it turns out there’s now a push on in the state legislature to stop handing out sales tax breaks like candy:

Lawmakers this spring are drafting legislation that attempts to reform the sport-incentive process used to award hundreds of millions in sales-tax rebates to NFL, baseball and NBA franchise owners.

The idea was floated last year by future Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. This year, it’s being steered by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and will likely engulf current efforts to win tax incentives for Major League Soccer in Orlando and Miami…

Weatherford said he was in no mood to acquiesce. “I’m not a big fan of allowing anyone to jump ahead of the pack, or trying to pick winners and losers,” he said.

All sports projects should “have to prove the value of that partnership on their end first, and then come back to the Legislature to ask for funding.”

Okay, so instead of “not handing out like candy” I actually should have written “handing out like candy from parents who are worried about spoiling their kids, and ask if they’ve finished all their homework and cleaned their room before buying them that jumbo bag of M&Ms.” I haven’t the foggiest what standards Weatherfod and his legislative colleagues are going to propose for team owners who want state money, but at this point any standards at all would be better than “line up on the left, and have your suitcase open to receive the unmarked bills.”

Orlando City SC latest team to evict church via eminent domain for stadium

Orlando City Soccer Club may have gotten its $20 million in public stadium money, but it hasn’t acquired the land it needs yet. So, naturally, it wants to evict a church to make way for its stadium, because that’s how things are done these days. And also naturally, now that the city can’t settle on a price for the church land (the city offered $1.5 million, Faith Deliverance Temple countered with $35 million), it plans to use its eminent domain powers to acquire it:

Jonathan Williams, son of the church’s founder, said city officials jumped the gun by ending negotiations and saying they had to settle it in court.

“If they want it, they’ll pay more for it than it’s actually worth. We used that [$35 million price] as a basis to start conversations,” Williams said. “I was shocked — I thought we were still in negotiations. There was a high ball and a low ball, so let’s work it out. They initiated the disconnect.”

Silly church founder’s son: There is no “high ball” and “low ball.” There is only  hardball.

Orlando City soccer celebrates $40m in stadium subsidies by asking for $30m in tax breaks

So for better or for worse, the Orlando City S.C. soccer stadium was approved last week, and the financial breakdown is set in stone: The team will put in $40 million, the city and county will put in $20 million each, and the rest will be covered in dribs and drabs that will somehow add up to $14 million. It’s neither the best stadium deal in history nor the worst, but at least it’s resolved and — hoooooold everything:

Even though Orlando boosters were rebuffed by the Legislature last spring when they sought a sales-tax rebate for the stadium, plans are afoot to ask again for $30 million in tax breaks, which could pave the way for the grander $114 million version.

This is the $2 million a year in state sales tax kickbacks that the state of Florida has in the past handed out to pretty much all of its sports teams, which was approved for OCSC by the state senate last spring, but then rejected by the state house amid the Miami Dolphins subsidy debate. Apparently OCSC could ask for the tax break as late as 2015, at which point its new stadium would be almost set to open, but presumably last-minute bells and whistles — the list includes more luxury seating, a second “executive club,” and more advertising boards — could be added if the state money turned up.

Which is completely screwy, and surely nobody in the state legislature thinks that the public should hand over $30 million for a stadium project that’s already being built, just so the team can get more stuff to boost its profits with, right? Right?

“I think it’s something that’s good for the community, it’s good for the state, and boy, does it help make this city more of a world-class community,” said Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who plans to push for the tax break next spring.

There you have it, sports fans: A “world-class community” is one that has more advertising signage at its soccer stadium. Put that in your don’t-know-what-I-said book.

Commissioner who voted against Orlando soccer deal calls economic impact numbers “twaddle”

One of the two commissioners of the Orange County Commissioner who voted against Tuesday’s approval of a $94 million Orlando City Soccer Club stadium has spoken out about the team’s claims that the project would produce $1.2 billion in economic impact over the next 30 years.

“The technical term for their (Orlando City’s) economic study is ‘twaddle.’” said Brummer on our Open Mike radio show Wednesday morning. “It reminds me of the old joke about CPAs and it goes like this: A client calls a CPA and says, ‘You’re a math expert, how much is 2 plus 2?’ And the CPA says to the client, ‘What did you have in mind?’

Best part of that joke: Brummer himself is a CPA.

That “our,” incidentally, refers to Orlando Sentinel columnist and ESPN radio host Mike Bianchi, who previously distinguished himself by writing when the Orlando Magic‘s $480 million in arena subsidies were approved that he “wanted to run up and high-five [Orlando mayor] Rich Crotty. Or put on one of those big foam fingers and start chanting, ‘Rich, Rich, he’s our man. He’s gonna pass this venue plan!’” Predictably, Bianchi is all in favor of the OCSC soccer deal, writing that “if you want to be a big-league city, you have to build venues to attract teams,” and also that “There are two things that bring a city together — tragedy and winning sports teams.” Bianchi did not comment on whether this means he’d also be in favor of subsidies to attract terrorist bombings.