WE TOLD YOU SO 


The year was 2003. Mayor Glenda Hood had recently announced her departure for Tallahassee, and Buddy Dyer was days away from succeeding her. Before Hood left, though, she gave the city one last present: an incentive package to Lou Pearlman's Trans Continental Companies to renovate the shuttered Church Street Station, including $1.5 million in loans and a slew of future tax breaks, which the city finalized on Feb. 24. Dyer signed it on March 28.

Church Street Station was once downtown's party central. But those days were gone by the end of Hood's tenure, along with much of downtown's vibrancy. As the Hood era came to a close, the mayor had little to show for it, at least downtown.

The promises Pearlman made of a thriving Church Street Station, filled with nightly concerts, retail shops and restaurants, were unrealistic – as this newspaper pointed out – but the city was so smitten with the idea of a bustling downtown that those concerns were swept aside.

From the start the project fell behind schedule. Soon after taking office, Dyer threatened to yank city loans because Pearlman wasn't meeting construction deadlines. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the city ultimately relented.

Pearlman, however, hasn't hit most of the performance benchmarks included in the incentive agreement, including one that required annual reports, prompting the city to tell him via a July 18 letter that there would be no tax breaks. Moreover, the first installment of Pearlman's 14 loan repayments to the city is due with his next tax bill; he owes about $86,000 the first two years, then $205,000 a year after that, according to Downtown Development Board director Frank Billingsley.

Does the city feel slighted? "Our job is always to encourage redevelopment," Billingsley says. "I wouldn't give up hope on any project."

The Trans Con folks don't want you to give up either. In a July 29 Orlando Business Journal article, Pearlman's spokeswoman put a lot of the blame on Robert Kling, Pearlman's partner in the renovation. In June, Pearlman bought out Kling's controlling interest in the project. As the OBJ reported, there are several restaurants and bars headed toward Church Street Station, which may begin to lure people back to the dormant block. And if you're inclined to be optimistic, the planned condo high-rise at 55 W. Church Street should soon begin construction.

Still, it isn't what we were promised. We were supposed to get an entertainment center to rival any in the Southeast, full of hipsters and celebrities and movie shoots. Instead, we're getting steakhouses and yuppie bars.

How big a dud is Church Street? Here's a report card on the 14 benchmarks the city included in the contract. As you'll see, Trans Continental is nowhere near hitting most of them. (Trans Continental didn't return phone calls for this story.)

Job creation: Pearlman said he'd create 500 full-time jobs by the end of 2003. Billingsley says the last he heard, the job count was 300. In the OBJ article, Pearlman's spokeswoman says it's now 500, including Trans Continental staff and tenants. But the city also required the average salary for those 500 jobs to be at least $31,000. No word on that.

Capital investment: Trans Continental was required to invest $11.5 million to make over Church Street Station. Pearlman hasn't turned in required annual reports, so there's no way to tell how much he's spent.

Live entertainment: Pearlman promised a twice-weekly live stage show called "From Motown to O'Town." Have you seen one? Neither have we.

Marketing: The city required that any television shows, video shoots or movies produced on the property be so labeled. Again, this would be detailed in the required reports, which are nonexistent. Billingsley didn't know if any such production work had taken place, much less if it was correctly tagged.

Signage: Trans Con does, as required, have a sign clearly visible from I-4.

Celebrity promotional spots: Trans Continental is supposed to produce two celebrity promotional ads for the Downtown Development Board every year. The DDB is still waiting.

Outdoor street events: This was the most ridiculous benchmark the city set. Pearlman was supposed to give us at least 150 outdoor street events during 2004, and no less than 200 during 2005. Unless you count a closed street full of patrons from bars not owned by Pearlman an "event," this hasn't happened.

Banquet operator: Pearlman agreed to contract with a nationally recognized banquet operator to open and manage banquet facilities. According to Billingsley, Trans Con met this benchmark.

Retail street frontage: By Jan. 1, 2004, Pearlman was supposed to have 75 percent of the retail space on the property filled. He is still nowhere near that goal.

Funding of special events: Trans Continental agreed to sponsor two special events a year, to the tune of $5,000. Hasn't happened.

State of downtown address: Pearlman was to give the city free use of a ballroom for its annual state of downtown address. He fulfilled this requirement.

Museum: Another questionable benchmark. Pearlman pledged to open and manage a museum dedicated to Florida music on Church Street. Hasn't happened.

Studios: Trans Continental was to have three sound studios and two rehearsal studios on the property. Are they there? "Not to my knowledge," says Billingsley. Again, Trans Continental didn't return calls for this story, and they haven't filed reports with the city.

Annual status reports: Pearlman was supposed to send the city an annual report by Jan. 31, 2004, and another by Jan. 31, 2005. Um, did we mention that didn't happen either?

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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