WHAT, US WORRY? 


In case you've spent the last few weeks in a cave, the United States is in something of a financial bind these days. The stock market has tanked. Credit lines have frozen. Banks have collapsed. Kids can't get student loans. Small businesses can't meet payroll. The federal government is dropping an obscene amount of money to bail out Wall Street in hopes that this mess won't turn into a rerun of the Great Depression. Unemployment has hit a seven-year high and will keep climbing.

The economic forecast is, to say the least, gloomy.

Our mayor, on the other hand, missed that memo. On Oct. 2, Buddy Dyer stood in front of city leaders and developers for his annual State of Downtown address and announced that everything was fine. The venues are still going full steam ahead. New downtown high-rises are breaking ground. The creative village will happen, as will that downtown movie theater that's been supposed to open any day now for the last three years.

The mayor mentioned the crisis in passing, saying it presented a "challenge" to the city. But hey, let's not dwell on the negative. Dyer spent the rest of his 15-minute speech telling us all the reasons Orlando will be exempt from the fiscal meltdown going on everywhere else in the country. There's the UCF Center for Emerging Media; the downtown Publix; the new OUC headquarters; the Montage, a new high-rise; the SoDo project; the Renaissance at Carver Square in Parramore; and, of course, the venues.

"Like FDR did in the 1930s, we will use our public projects to provide jobs and job training during tough economic times," Dyer proclaimed.

Got that? Rich DeVos' Golden Pleasure Dome™ is our New Deal.

Not quite. The truth is we're about to dive into the pool without checking to see if there's water. Think about it: What are the two revenue sources on which this $1.7 billion — interest included — crapshoot is based? Increased tourist tax and downtown property-tax revenue.

If the economy hits the skids, will tourism go up? It would have to in order to meet revenue projections. Will a family from Peoria pack up the minivan and drive down here when their house is being foreclosed on? Is our tourism industry — and thus, our ability to pay off this massive debt — going to rely solely on the hope that Wall Street's woes don't continue hopping the pond, and that Brits keep flying over here in droves?

And what about property taxes? With the credit markets frozen, people can't get loans. If they can't get loans, they can't buy property. If they can't buy houses, property values decline. If property values sink, property-tax revenues go down. That's on top of two years of relatively nonexistent condo sales downtown.

The city has repeatedly promised that it has every contingency covered. Here's their reasoning: Tourist-tax revenues have always gone up, so they always will go up; same with property values downtown. That's exactly the same "irrational exuberance" that has almost destroyed the nation's economy. And the future of downtown Orlando is pinned on it.

When the mayor picks up pom-poms and becomes our cheerleader-in-chief, he can talk a good game. There's no need to talk about whether the credit market black hole is going to drive interest rates — and the projects' price tags — way up. There's no need to ponder whether this is really the time for high-priced projects so unpopular that city leaders refused to even consider putting them to a popular vote, then had to cut services and fire 50 city employees to fix the $30 million budget shortfall they caused.

Dyer brushes such questions aside. Instead, he likes to talk about yet another new residential high-rise, as if there aren't enough empty buildings to remind us of the reality of the situation. He likes to talk about a movie theater that never materializes, while not mentioning that it would be located in a building whose developer went bankrupt. And he likes to talk about how "we are on course to bring world-class arts and entertainment options to downtown Orlando," as if this were 2005 and people still cared about such things, not their withering 401(k) and the house they can't sell.

It's scary to realize, but there is no one at the city's helm.

Additional reporting by Billy Manes.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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