This deal is a tURD

When we last left the debacle of Pepperhill Park `Problems in Pepperhill Park, March 25`, a city selection committee had sent a letter to Urban Renaissance Development, LLC demanding that the development company produce a plan slightly more in touch with reality for building townhouses on a chunk of property in Parramore. URD, you may recall, is the corporation closely tied to the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida, Inc., of which city commissioner Daisy Lynum is a director. It was the sole bidder to revitalize the vacant 3.5-acre parcel of land, and what it wanted from the city was simply outrageous.

URD asked that the city give it land -- valued at more than $1.1 million -- for free, and fork over another $2.5 million on top of that. In return, URD would build 36 townhomes, priced between $120,000 and $151,000 each, and 10,000 square feet of commercial office space. The development would be sandwiched between a slum, commercial property and an industrial warehouse. URD claimed it needed the government handout to make Pepperhill Park work.

Of course, the selection committee said no -- even Lynum's confidante, Ann Brown, who chairs the committee, didn't seem too psyched about URD's proposal -- and asked URD to come up with a deal that doesn't rely quite so heavily on tax dollars.

URD's response came in March 31. "After designing the Pepperhill Park development to meet the guidelines and requirements of the RFP (requests for proposal) and considering unit sales for the town homes and the commercial live/work units based on current market sales, it is clear that it is not possible to build the development without realizing a financial loss. We are committed to working with the City to make the project a financially feasible endeavor."

In other words, URD still wants your tax money, either in the form of that $2.5 million, or in relaxed development standards that will make it cheaper to build, and therefore easier to turn a buck in Pepperhill Park.

Both options are problematic. Giving any public money to these amateurs (URD has never developed anything to date, and in fact didn't exist before December, 2003) is foolhardy; and lowering standards means the city doesn't get what it wanted when it put the project out to bid in December. URD was well aware of the standards when they bid on the project in the first place. To suggest a big backslide now is indicative of how desperately they want to get their faces in the public trough. Had those standards been relaxed in the first place, the city would have probably received more -- and better -- bids, rather than a single proposal from URD.

URD's response to the city gave me a chance to see exactly how Inez Long, president of both URD and BBIF, justifies the $3.6 million (counting the land) handout she's seeking. Answer: not very well.

Assuming the land is free, URD says building 36 townhomes and three 3,333-square-foot commercial spaces will cost a staggering $8.5 million. Even after everything is sold, the company claims it will lose $2.47 million, which is why they need your tax dollars in the form of a city handout.

Is your bullshit detector going off?

Let's start with the 9 percent "developer's fee," or the $700,000 in off-the-top profit that will go to BBIF. (Keep in mind that the same person -- Inez Long -- runs both companies.) Then add the general contractor's designated profit of more than $300,000, which according to URD's proposal will go to R.L. Burns, and you're already over the $1 million mark, with absolutely zero risk.

But wait, there's more. URD also claims the office space will cost $950,000 to build, but will be sold for just $750,000. What kind of developer builds something anticipating a $200,000 loss? A bad one, or perhaps one that is counting on taxpayers to keep them in the black.

Deeper into the deal the math gets even fuzzier. Each townhouse -- which will average about 1,500 square feet -- will supposedly cost URD more than $180,000 to build, meaning that they'll be sold at a loss of between $30,000 and $60,000. That brings up three possibilities: 1) URD's estimates are inflated so as to fleece the city, 2) whoever put together the bid package is flatly incompetent, or 3) there's no fiscally responsible way to do this deal.

Feel free to reach your own conclusions as to which possibility is closest to the truth. Regardless, this thing needs to go away, and the sooner, the better.

Has anyone seen my backbone?

So I'm reading the April, 2004, Downtown Orlando Leader, the fluffy "newspaper" put out by Phil Rampy that treats Mayor Buddy Dyer as if he were Buddha incarnate -- and I come across a truly hard-hitting interview with Hizzoner. How hard-hitting, you ask? Well, allow me to quote the final two sentences of the "story," by Tina Mahjoub: "With plans already in progress to handle every issue, I'm sure that this is the year for Orlando to really come together. It's time for us to sit back and nod our heads in approval of Mayor Buddy Dyer."

Anyway, Mahjoub managed to ask Dyer about his Downtown Strategic Transition Team's recommendation to extend downtown drinking hours to 4 a.m. Dyer, the local king of the fence-straddle, offered this bit of nothingness: "I just don't know, although it was one of the recommendations made by DSTT, I am still agitated about the progress that was made at our committee meeting. The DSTT had tremendous efforts made from all sorts of individuals and businesses that helped guide them in the right direction and had made tremendous progress, but the media decided to focus on extending bar hours to 4 a.m. I don't have a time frame for this and I don't think it's a silver bullet to help downtown Orlando."

Translation from Buddy-speak: "Drop the shot glass and go home because I lost my backbone. Even though I know I have the votes to do it, I really, really, don't want old farts and hand-wringing killjoys lining up at City Hall to bitch me out."

So I figured I'd call Buddy's office to see what he'd say to a slightly less bootlicking publication. He agreed to a brief interview, though spokeswoman Lauren Hames cautioned me not to talk too much about the whole drinking-hours thing: "He really hates that."

"It's not that I don't like talking about it," Dyer tells me. "It's because 99 percent of the press, instead of focusing on the 19 other `DSTT` recommendations, reported only on the drinking hours issue."

To Buddy, it's a secondary priority, and one that should only be addressed after the rest of the downtown puzzle clears up a little. After that, "Then we can have a conversation. I want to see where we go with downtown first."

So don't hold your breath -- or your drink past 2 a.m. As for the rest of our chat with Buddy Dyer, we'll get to that soon enough.

Blinders on!

As a rule, I find the Orlando Sentinel's columnists excruciatingly uninteresting. With a few exceptions -- Mike Thomas and Myriam Marquez -- there's little in the way of real insight and plenty of regurgitation. Good columnists bring something new to the table. Bad columnists think their musings alone are worth your time. The Sentinel is chock-full of the latter.

So pardon me while I indulge in the same sin and natter on about the ubiquitous Richard Clarke for a hundred words or so.

I've been watching the evolution of this story with a strange fascination. That the White House's response would be brutal was obvious. Injured dogs bite, and Clarke's suggestion that Shrub dropped the ball vis-á-vis Al Qaeda certainly got his panties in a bunch.

What I don't quite grasp, however, is how readily Republicans are eating this bullshit up, and how easily they're able to dismiss out of hand any criticism of "our president." Listen to AM talk radio for an hour, or scan conservative webzines, and you'll see what I'm talking about: Clarke has to have nefarious motives, otherwise the pedestal upon which the right places St. George II might come crashing down.

The reality is that Clarke is credible. He knew terrorism better than anybody, and his allegation that Bush was myopically focused on Iraq and didn't take real terrorist threats as seriously as he should is backed up not only by former administration officials like Paul O'Neill, and myriad new articles and Bush's own admission to author Bob Woodward, but common sense itself.

Clarke's story might not tell the whole picture, but it is without question an important element. And blithely discounting his words because you don't like what he's saying is just stupid.

But the right doesn't seem ready to admit that. So Richard Clarke must be corrupt. He just has to be.

Oh "Sisters" there art you

A few weeks ago I beseeched Slug's loyal readers to produce a copy of Lynne "I'm married to Big Dick" Cheney's "Sisters," her 1981 novel about lesbians and whorehouses. That request was answered by a great big silence. Thanks for nothing, people.

I grew angry and frustrated. I locked myself in my room and pouted. And then, relief. I read in Newsweek that the book has been released in the United States as of April 6, so actually tracking down a copy should be a bit easier. I wonder if Wal-Mart will carry it.

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