How do you sell an unpopular idea? Simple. Gin up interest in it and hope it gains momentum.

That's the strategy behind the "grass-roots" organization recently formed to ram the idea of downtown's Big Three — new performing arts center, renovated Citrus Bowl, new arena — down the throat of a reluctant populace. So far, it seems to be working.

Project Hometown only got off the ground in October, but they've already managed to raise $125,000 dedicated to convincing Central Floridians that everyone else is on board so why aren't you? No one wants to be left off the bandwagon.

On Project Hometown's website, www.projecthometown.com, the group calls itself "a citizens committee comprised of everyday people, public and private entities, businesses, and community partners, from all walks of life who believe that Orlando is a great destination — and that the time is now for us to build an even better hometown." You'd think that everyone from the shoeshine boy to the local grocer was out selling lemonade to pitch in.

Not quite. The people who would profit handsomely from the projects gave the seed money to get Project Hometown off the ground. An Oct. 4 story in the Orlando Sentinel states, "Various business and venue supporters contributed $5,000 each to get the group going, and more donations are being sought." Project Hometown's list of initial contributors includes United Arts of Central Florida, the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Orlando Performing Arts Center, Florida Citrus Sports and the Orlando Magic. Hardly an organic uprising. Since the start-up about 100 additional individuals and businesses have made donations, says the group's very congenial executive director, Christina Johnson.

Of course there is nothing wrong with raising money to support a cause. The trouble starts when you portray yourself as something you are not — grass-roots — and then you spin the facts to improve your case.

Project Hometown does seem to have a little trouble with the facts. They recently sent out a "call to action" asking recipients to urge their elected officials to get off their asses and get these projects moving. Included in the "talking points" section is a line about how the Citrus Bowl has "NEVER" (emphasis theirs) been renovated in its 70-year history, which of course is laughable. It was originally built to seat 8,900 people; it now seats some 70,000. Unless those fans are stacked eight deep in the original seats, there has been some renovating over the years. And if you were around in 1989, the last time the place got a facelift, you know the job cost $38 million.

On the group's website you'll find a plethora of facts and figures about the economic impact of the Big Three, which you can choose to believe or not. I'll just note that there are people who study such things for a living who dispute the notion of economic multipliers and point out that entertainment dollars are finite; in other words, if you don't spend your disposable income on a basketball game you might go to a movie instead, but it's unlikely you'll do both just because you have the option.

There is one "fact" on Project Hometown's website that borders on irresponsible, however. In the frequently asked questions section there is an excellent FAQ: Why not put these projects to a popular vote?

Project Hometown's answer is as evasive as it is misleading. "This is not a sales tax on taxpayer dollars," the site states. "It is derived from the Tourist Development Tax and thus not subject to voter approval."

The Tourist Development Tax is a big part of the deal, but it's far from the only funding source. The city, the state and even private interests are together kicking in hundreds of millions of dollars. And even if it were all TDT money, what gives public officials the right to determine the future of Orlando without "voter approval"?

But the most disingenuous aspect of Project Hometown is that it lays out a Hobson's choice for Central Florida: Follow this "bold" initiative, or stagnate. What's ignored is the third choice: We could acknowledge these pieces of infrastructure are in need of improvement (except for the renovation of the Citrus Bowl, which is just asinine) and we could demand that elected officials find a fiscally responsible way to get it done. We could demand that the Magic pay their fair share. We could be honest about the real cost of building and running a performing arts center — the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre breaks even or makes money, while the new center will cost the city at least $4 million a year for the next 30 years — then put it to a vote and see if Central Floridians want to put their money where their mouth is.

These projects have been rammed through with as little public input as possible. The whole process has been dishonest and sleazy. In that sense Project Hometown really does represent its constituency.


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