The developers and real estate professionals who comprise the core membership of the Tampa Bay chapter of NAIOP are rolling up their sleeves and preparing for the fight of their careers:
Amendment 4, a.k.a., “Hometown Democracy.”
It would impose a referendum requirement on all local comprehensive plan changes that, in turn, could be a virtual death sentence for Florida development and business growth.
It is, in NAIOP’s eyes, the scourge of future business and economic development across Florida, a potential blight on the Sunshine State that makes no sense and is the utter and complete opposite of “democracy.”
“I think it would stop virtually all development in Florida,” says Chase Collier, president of NAIOP Tampa Bay. “We would be at the bottom of any company’s list to relocate—Florida in its entirety—because it would take so long to get projects out of the ground.”
Surely there is something good to be found in Amendment 4?
“No!” Collier says, laughing. “And ‘No!’ is a complete sentence!”
But if that’s the case, how did it make it to the ballot?
“The unfortunate portrayal of the name, ‘Hometown Democracy,’ is appealing on its face,” he acknowledges. “It got by because the pro-Amendment 4 supporters got enough signatures to put it on the ballot. They have that right.
“Its primary supporters are attorneys that have personally financed this movement,” Collier continues. “I don’t see it as feasible for them to continue to try” if it doesn’t succeed in November.
According to Collier and others, Amendment 4 would be the industrial equivalent of a wooden stake in the heart of Florida development—already in the tank thanks to two years of recession, bank upheaval and plummeting property values.
“Our membership—the few developers still around—it would be very tough for them to continue,” he says. “NAIOP would continue to survive in Florida; if Amendment 4 passes, it will be up to those involved in NAIOP to figure out ways to reverse Amendment 4.”
NAIOP Tampa Bay—alongside Florida’s five other regional chapters and NAIOP Florida—has been girding for this fight for several years. It repeatedly and successfully joined the fight to keep Hometown Democracy off the state ballot—until now. This fall, Amendment 4 will ask Florida voters to take sides between no-growthers and business development.
“We are raising lots of money to fight this thing this year,” says Jeff Rogo, NAIOP’s staff director of government affairs.
Heading the fundraising effort for NAIOP Florida is Julia Rettig, president of Tampa Bay Development.
“It is on the ballot; there needs to be a great sense of urgency about it,” she says. “Because there have been so many stops and gos, people have been complacent. A lot of people in our industry don’t realize it’s on the ballot. We haveto fight it.”
To what, exactly, does NAIOP object so stridently in the bill?
“So many things,” Rettig says. “Where do we start?
“The bottom line is that before a local government can adopt a comprehensive plan or amendment, it’s suggested the voters have a say in this, taking the vote away from elected officials. As it stands, the process for developing property in Florida is already very complicated. Amendment 4 really adds a tremendous amount of time.”
Rettig calls it a “no-growth initiative. This isn’t just about NAIOP. It’s about hospitals and schools. It’s onerous.”
Given a choice between the current system of dealing with an elected legislative body—whether at the state or local level—and what it sees as the need to become politicians themselves to pass every future development of modest or major scale, developers would rather keep the status quo they know.
“The community already has a voice today,” Rettig says. “You’re not a smart developer if you start a development and don’t talk with the community. If you don’t show up in the community and talk to residents, you’re going to have a failed project. It’s already encouraged—and this just takes it all away.
“Florida is a very progressive state when it comes to the government. We’ve already got a lot of things in place that make it difficult to develop. (With Amendment 4) you’d have to run a political campaign to get a change made to a comp plan. Businesses will not pick Florida if that is the case. They’re not going to spend the time and effort to potentially get defeated at the ballot box.”
Pro-Hometown Democracy forces believe the voters have a fundamental right to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on big changes to their communities.
“It sounds like Mom and apple pie,” Rettig acknowledges. “There’s a sense already that our elected officials aren’t paying attention. But voters will face things from a routine change to something very complicated. The voters don’t care; they’ll just say no to everything. I think it’s going to make voters very dissatisfied with the process.”
Rettig says that Amendment 4 will not stop sprawl because the biggest developers will still spend the money to influence voters (instead of elected officials) and will find ways to get what they want. “But the little guys can’t afford it.”
NAIOP Florida has thrown its weight behind “Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy,” a non-profit, non-partisan organization behind the website Florida2010.com. The site includes a list of groups—far beyond NAIOP—that have banded together to fight adoption of Amendment 4. These include dozens upon dozens of professional associations, trade associations, chambers of commerce, economic development councils and a number of city and county governments.
Among the cities lined up against Amendment 4 is St. Pete Beach, upon whose anti-growth ordinance Amendment 4 is based. Developers and business leaders in St. Pete Beach have complained long and hard about the stress the restrictive local ordinance has put on business and property owners.
“The only winners will be the consultants hired to communicate the projects and the lawyers hired to sue,” Rettig says. “It’s the no-growth lawyers who want to challenge the voters. They’ve got litigation up to their eyeballs in St. Pete Beach. At the end of the day, it’s a no-growth initiative.
“If anyone’s already unhappy with the conditions of our economy today, they better get ready for a real severe ride,” she adds.
• • •
Even as it girds for a fight against Amendment 4, NAIOP Tampa Bay finds itself in the unaccustomed position of pushing for a new user tax in Hillsborough County.
At issue is a one-cent, countywide sales tax intended to fund part of the cost of building light-rail from Tampa to Orlando. President Obama has already approved a $1.25 billion grant to Florida, but local governments are under pressure to generate local dollars as well.
Collier admits it’s a position his group doesn’t take often.
“Yes,” he says. “But the focus on mobility needs would provide greater economic development and re-development opportunities, and that greatly outweighs the negative consequences. It would help us insure sustainable growth.”
Seventy-five percent of the tax’s proceeds would benefit transit projects, with the rest going to non-transit projects.
“The mayor of Tampa (Pam Iorio) has been behind any kind of transportation enhancement,” Collier says. “I hear that in every speech she’s given. NAIOP has always been pro-transit.”
For NAIOP, a modern mass transit system represents potential business development and job growth. The group is seeking a competitive advantage—or at least equalization—with other metropolitan areas, particularly Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta.
Charlotte already has the LYNX light rail connecting its uptown and Interstate 485, which Collier believes gives it “a distinct competitive advantage” in attracting businesses to relocate and grow.
“Transportation and economic development are linked,” according to NAIOP’s Rogo. “We’re supportive of these things as opposed to being against things. I’m proud of the fact NAIOP has gotten out front on economic development, jobs and transportation.”
Dallas Whitaker, a principal at Tampa-based Foundation Realty Advisors, is chairman of NAIOP Tampa Bay’s economic development task force. He says that transportation is an integral part of the area and the state moving forward with a comprehensive economic development plan.
“We have almost 20 million people in the state, but no comprehensive transportation program,” Whitaker says. “We have bits and pieces. But to move the state forward and position the major metropolitan areas to compete for major expansion, relocation and job creation, we can’t just keep adding lanes to existing roads.”
Tourism and residential development have traditionally been good growth engines, but “We need to be diversified,” according to Whitaker. “The life sciences push that’s been underway for five years with Draper Laboratories, SRI, Scripps the Burnham Institute at Lake Nona, and everything going on with USF—that’s some exciting stuff.”
To keep that going, Whitaker is convinced the next step is investing in mass transit.
“Over the last 18 months, our task force has done a lot of investigation,” he says. “We’ve talked to the economic development agencies here and in Orlando. We’ve met with the county commissioners and had several programs. The people in my industry get it; quality transportation is an investment. But if we do it right, it will provide dividends down the road.”
Tom Kennedy is a vice president of Grubb & Ellis Commercial Florida in Tampa. He is also “the transportation guru,” according to Whitaker. Stadium for Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball
“The idea of supporting a sales tax that is really an investment in jobs and our economy is a good one,” Kennedy says. “The fact that transit and transit-oriented development does this by improving the connectivity and quality of life for a broad range of our citizens, through local taxes that are spent locally, makes this effort unique. For every dollar spent, we get a $6 return, with $3 spent on local purchases.”
Mass transit is also expected to address the region’s changing demographics. While it is often noted that the younger generation will likely be early adopters of rail-based transit, it will also likely serve the senior population as well. Greater mobility could expand the distance for comfortable commuting, and Kennedy believes more employees will be available for more businesses and employees will have greater job opportunities.
“Transit provides a basis for redevelopment that is efficient and sustainable while helping to preserve our existing neighborhoods,” he says. “These developments are focused on pedestrian friendly designs that provide mobility options other than the automobile. Right now, an estimated 25 percent of a family’s income in an auto dependent world—here, for example—is spent on transportation while in a transit rich world only nine percent goes to transportation. This means that transit could free up, on average, $8,000 a year per family in transportation costs, that could be spent on other things.”
Finally, and most importantly, Kennedy says, Tampa Bay really has no other options. Auto dependent development patterns have maxed out the region’s urban road capacity and there is no more room and not enough money to expand the road system further.
“We will face more congestion and lost time on the road,” Kennedy says. “Our quality of life will suffer, people and businesses will move away. Those remaining will have to cover ever-increasing costs of maintaining a degrading infrastructure. This is a classic cycle of urban decay.
“Or… we can take control of our lives and invest in our future. While this is a great quality of life effort … it is also the best business decision we could make. That’s why NAIOP supports transit.”
When Corporate America is looking to expand, it goes through a specific criteria and checklist. A good transportation system, more often than not these days, is right near the top of the list. NAIOP leaders believe Tampa Bay area communities are being eliminated right off the top by bigger fish because it doesn’t have that mass transit box to check off.
Whitaker says light rail is the trifecta of job creation:
Jobs created to construct the project.
Higher, transit-oriented development in and around the stations and the track routes. “That will create ongoing jobs”
“By doing all that, you put our area in a more competitive, better arena, alongside Charlotte, Denver and Phoenix, competing for jobs.”
“I’m not in favor of higher taxes at all,” Whitaker says. “But this one is different. And compared to doing nothing, we’ve got to move forward and take this step. We should have done it 10 years ago. It’s time to do it.”
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Copyright 2010 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman