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An open letter to the mayor 

Mayor Buddy Dyer
One City Commons
400 South Orange Ave.
Orlando, FL 32802

Dear Buddy:

The fact that you have convened a task force to study the problems and potential of downtown Orlando is admirable, and I for one wish you nothing but success. Your predecessor did her level best to kill downtown to save it, not realizing, or perhaps not caring, that nothing flourishes in sterile ground. Now it's your turn, and I have to believe your intentions are good.

But let's not speak of She Who Will Not Be Named. Those dark days are over, that shadow has passed. Your term brings with it a new day for Orlando, and you've done nothing material since the forced early election in February to squander our trust. (The mandate to route all media inquiries through your office is problematic; the firing of about 200 city employees was a shock to the system; obsessively apple-polishing your image is a little creepy; and is that makeup you are wearing during city council meetings? Oh never mind. It's September and no one has signed up to challenge you in the real election in March, which speaks volumes for your record so far.)

What you have here, your honor, is a popular mandate to build a downtown that isn't just for suits during the day and bare midriffs at night. (Not that I have anything against either, mind you. But when you get to a certain age you realize there is more to life than three-for-one wells. You know what I'm talking about, we're both there.) Orlando is ready to shake off its small-town malaise, you can just about taste it. Downtown as a destination again? Damn.

"Feet on the street" is the catchphrase planner-types use for this sort of downtown. What they mean is a cultural nexus of Central Florida, the place to go if you want to see an indie film, hear some jazz, do Jell-O shots, see a play, bare your midriff, buy a book, have a steak, etc. I see festivals, street parties, art shows, beer tastings and bicycle races. Let's weld the manhole covers down and run Formula One cars down Orange Avenue at 200 mph like they do in Miami. Let's borrow a page from "La Tomatina," the Spanish festival during which people pelt one another with tomatoes, only we'll cordon off downtown and hurl oranges in a nod to Orlando's cultural heritage. Let's march around the streets with enormous phalluses on our heads, like the Japanese do in their fertility parades.

Let's think big, Buddy; this is no time for timidity. You've got the mandate, you've got the pulpit, and you've got the means. Everybody wants to see something happen downtown.

I've got to be honest, though: I'm a little worried about the process. I know we're already five months down the road with the Downtown Strategic Transition Team, but I've been following along as the five subcommittees grind through their machinations; and the whole thing is beginning to feel a little like business as usual. That's the last thing we need. On Sept. 25, the subcommittees will finish their work and make their recommendations, which you, of course, are free to press or table. But there are a couple things to keep in mind while you are ruminating.

First and foremost, excluding Parramore from the DSTT's purview was a big mistake. Allow me to quote from your announcement speech, Dec. 30: "This once proud neighborhood not far from where we stand today is still faced with crime statistics that would not be tolerated in other neighborhoods around the city, few businesses have reopened these last 10 years and home ownership in this neighborhood has fallen." Also, if I may, a snippet from your inauguration speech, Feb. 26: "We need to restore Parramore. No neighborhood has been studied more than Parramore. The time to act is now. You can measure my success as Mayor of Orlando by my ability to rebuild this once proud neighborhood. My first priority will be to develop a plan that will increase home ownership in that neighborhood and provide funds for families to renovate homes they might already own."

You impressed a lot of people, me included, with the "measure my success" line. Which why I couldn't understand why you would cut Parramore out of the DSTT's work.

Parramore isn't the heart of downtown, granted. But neither is Thornton Park, a healthy chunk of which is included in the DSTT's study area. (Not to mention that Phil Rampy serves on DSTT.) You know where I'm going with this, but I'll go there anyway: Thornton Park is affluent and white. Parramore is poor and black.

The Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency's boundaries take in Parramore, but the Downtown Strategic Transition Team's interest only includes the Centroplex. To some, that colossus still stands as a monument to the good-old-boy way of doing business, given that 100 homes were bulldozed to make way for it. As one source I talked to said, "None of the faces of the people whose houses were leveled were white." Drawing the DSTT's boundary around the Centroplex sure feels like redlining.

I haven't been to every meeting of every subcommittee, but I've been to enough of them to pick up a lot of talk about "lack of connectivity," which in this case is planning-speak for the idea that I-4 is a Great Wall of sorts between the east and west sides of the city. When your own handpicked brain trust won't scale the wall and take a stab at inclusiveness, that's a problem.

In all fairness, the Arts, Entertainment & Sports subcommittee did chat a bit about Tinker Field and the Citrus Bowl, both of which are officially part of the Centroplex and squarely in Parramore. But the committee concluded that the two stadiums are too remote from "downtown" and decided to focus instead on keeping the Magic from running out on us. That's a fine goal in and of itself, but again Parramore gets cut out of the loop.

I don't need to tell you that Tinker Field and the Citrus Bowl are both sites with some historical relevance. There's a lot of hand-wringing over whether or not the Tavistock-Jaymont block should be preserved because it once housed a five-and-dime, just like the five-and-dime in every other city in America. The Citrus Bowl, as you know, was originally built by the WPA in 1936, and folks have been playing ball at Tinker Field since '14. In Florida, that qualifies both structures as historic.

The only other discussion of a Parramore-related issue that I'm aware of came from the Quality of Life committee, which had the bad taste to suggest that a daycare center for the homeless be located downtown, instead of in Parramore, and noted that people in Parramore were sick of having social service-agencies dumped in their lap. Indeed.

On Sept. 8, the various subcommittees got together for a dose of public input on what they'd come up with so far. As you probably saw on TV, most of the podium time was taken up by people spouting off on the extended-drinking-hours issue. (I'm for 24-hour bar hours, by the way.) But there was one guy who spent his three minutes at the microphone lamenting the fact that Parramore was -- once again -- not invited to the party. "I seriously suggest that any future subcommittees reflect the diversity of the community," he said.

To which DSTT chairwoman Cari Coats replied, "Mayor Dyer will appoint a committee to address that sometime in the future."

It's already been studied to death. The conclusion is always the same: Too much crime, too little home ownership, too many social-service agencies, too few opportunities.

Perception counts in politics. Even if you weren't serious about your promise of doing something about Parramore (and I'm far from ready to think that's the case), you should have at least invited them to the table.

And those who did get an invitation? They were, for the most part, blue-ribbon movers and shakers with a stake in a healthy downtown -- lawyers, bar owners, architects and planners. You picked the CEO of Full Sail, the CEO of City Beverages, the president of Kuhn Management, the CEO of ZOM Holding Inc., a UCF vice president, and the president of Bank of America. All and all, an impressive roster of almost exclusively white professionals. "It's a committee of some clout," Doug Head told me. "I think people who are going to make change happen were at the table."

He's right. This is Orlando and these are the people with their hands on the levers. It's been that way for a long time.

While I was looking into downtown redevelopment, I had the good fortune to speak with Jay Jurie, an associate professor of public administration at UCF. Jurie, who thinks the west side of town has been the target of institutional racism forever -- either intentional or otherwise -- suggested an excellent book that I found very insightful, and I'll pass along the recommendation.

It's called "Streets of Hope," by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, and it chronicles the rebirth of Boston's Dudley Street neighborhood. It's dry at times, but the central theme is simple and powerful: When the city of Boston did things to and for Dudley Street, nothing worked. The place was a shit hole, with burned cars, garbage-strewn vacant lots, bars on the windows and drugs in the streets.

Only when the people of Dudley Street took charge of the situation and formed their own nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding their neighborhood did things change. Boston city officials, accustomed to calling the shots, were leery at first. Then they decided to cooperate.

The whole DSTT process feels too far above the street, like the view from the Downtown Development Board's 12th-story window when we should be looking inside the old McCrory's building. It would have been nice to see homeless advocates, downtown residents, cops, 20-somethings, oldsters, neighborhood groups, activists, etc., on the DSTT panel. You might have come up with something the president of Bank of America hadn't thought about. Who knows?

While we're on the topic, the subcommittee meetings should have been held in the evening so we plebes could attend. In lieu of that, they should have been taped and rebroadcast on Orange TV. I went to as many meetings as I could catch, which was not many, and going to them was part of my job. I'll venture a guess that almost no one from the public, besides David Van Gelder (Parramore landowner) and myself attended any of the subcommittee meetings.

Oh, and I hate to be a snitch, but you had a little problem with absenteeism. Some meetings had more staff members than committee members in the room, and the Aug. 28 meeting of the entire DSTT almost didn't happen due to lack of a quorum. (The official role, for the record: 17 present, 11 absent.)

Listen, Buddy: Downtown's problems are far from insurmountable. It boils down to a few simple things: nix the emphasis on "family friendliness," market the area as an attraction, call off the parking Nazis, extend bar hours, encourage small retailers to move in, bring Parramore to the table, schedule a couple dozen festivals and events (Light Up Orlando is a great start, but don't shut it down at 11 p.m., and why not spread Orlando Carnival throughout downtown instead of confining it to the west side?); and get something going in the Tavistock-Jaymont block. Then you can sit back and listen as Orlandoans sing your praises.

Anyway, that's my 1,969 words worth. Here's hoping that the DSTT's recommendations prove golden, that Orlando morphs into one happenin' burg and that none of this kvetching ultimately matters.

Yours for a vivacious tomorrow,

Bob Whitby

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