In the late 1980s, Ed Turanchik made a name for himself in the Tampa Bay area: He was a radical environmentalist, a Sierra Club chairman, a guy who at one point argued that development in rural south Hillsborough County should be limited to one dwelling per 10 acres. Convinced that a government-drawn land-use plan would lead to haphazard sprawl, he and the Sierra Club even sued Hillsborough County to make them rethink it -- and won.

Once, hoping to head off a vote to rezone 5,000 acres of wetlands and rare scrub habitat for development, Turanchik hammered home his objections so strongly that Hillsborough County Commissioner Haven Poe told him, "Ed, if you don't like it, why don't you run against me?"

He did. Voters embraced Turanchik's ideas so much that he beat the incumbent Poe by 20 points. But as his political career gravitated toward ever-larger projects like commuter rail and the controversial restructuring of the local water authority, he began to make political enemies. At least once, he butted heads with local environmentalists. Some began to ask what happened to his environmental commitment. Others contended he was simply chasing the money.

They found their proof when, in the middle of his third term, Turanchik bolted for a job with an apparent 50 percent pay raise. The fact he'd helped create it only furthered the criticism. But this was no mere promotion: He was leaving to head up Florida 2012, the Tampa-based drive to bring the Summer Olympics to Central Florida, now a hard-charging effort with the official participation of Orlando and Orange County.

How did the advocate for open spaces come to champion such a huge public-works project, potentially pouring millions of dollars' worth of concrete from here to Tampa Bay in the form of roads, rail lines, housing and sports facilities, not to mention the immobilizing crush of people that would populate the event?

Turanchik sees no contradiction. In fact, he insists that the Olympics could be an environmental boom.

"The last 10 years have been a journey for me," he says. "But absolutely none of my values have changed. I just have a different perspective on how you get to the place I think we want to be as a society."

For Turanchik to be at the center of the amateur sports world, a few hurdles must be jumped.

But he's gained essential partners. Last week, the Florida Legislature agreed to create a $175 million reserve fund to subsidize any financial losses from hosting the games, effectively making the effort a statewide one. That reserve was required by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to qualify Florida's bid, which is one of nine taking shape in cities (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, Dallas, Cincinnati and the favorite, Washington/Baltimore) across the country. Also on board with big-bucks sponsorships are Disney, Busch Gardens/Sea World, and the Orlando/ Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, among others. All totaled, Florida 2012 has so far collected more than $9 million.

Like those from the other cities, Florida's bid is due Dec. 5. The USOC has until the fall of 2002 to pick one and send it to the International Olympic Committee, which will announce the winner in 2005.

Unknown at this point -- mostly because Turanchik and company haven't revealed specifics -- are huge details: How much new construction would be required? Which existing venues would serve as competition sites? What mass-transit improvements would be needed to shuttle crowds around? Which fixtures would be temporary, and which would dot the landscape for much longer? Not the least is, who will pay for it all?

The unanimous votes in the Florida Legislature to create the reserve account were content to leave those questions unanswered for now. "We are sending a clear message that Florida has a compelling interest in promoting the effort to host the Olympic Games in 2012," said state Sen. John McKay, of Bradenton. "So much of Florida's economy and state budget ties to tourism, entertainment and international trade that hosting the Olympic games just makes sense for us."

Organizers turned to Orlando in particular for its wealth of hotel rooms, as well as possible use of the Citrus Bowl, the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center and Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. Orlando reciprocated, becoming a full partner in the effort.

"I was one of many civic and government leaders from Orlando and Tampa who felt confident about Ed's ability to lead this Central Florida initiative," says Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood, who now sits on Florida 2012's board of directors. "Ed is a very energetic and passionate consensus builder who has done a superb job in bringing structure and financial resources to the Florida 2012 bid."

Three years ago, Orlando passed on spending $100,000 to designate itself as a competitor for the 2008 Olympic Games. "There was not much major community interest in it from the beginning, and nothing now," Hood said at the time.

These days, however, Hood sees things quite differently, mostly because the city is not responsible for footing the bill. "The 2012 partnership," she says, "lifts that financial fear. Florida 2012 provides much more to Orlando residents, because it is a regional partnership that will not only generate strategic investments in our city's infrastructure, but will give us maximum exposure internationally."

Turanchik also espouses that ideal of regional cooperation: His hope, he says, is a united Central Florida "where we all felt that each community was our backyard."

On first impression, Turanchik boasts all the characteristics of a bona fide politician: He's tall, considerably younger in appearance than his 44 years, facile with language, and forceful when discussing his political ideas. One Tampa Bay political observer says he combines the best attributes of the Clinton-Gore administration: like Bill Clinton, he's good-looking and charming; like Al Gore, he carries a fever for his convictions.

Also like Gore, Turanchik's a self-described "greenie," an avid environmentalist who in 1994 won the Audubon Society's John Brooks Memorial Award for being the state's top local elected leader in environmental issues.

"I've always been interested in the environment," the Ohio native says -- an interest anchored, he adds, by boyhood fishing expeditions with his father.

"My mom hated fishing," he remembers. "Dad and I would drag my mom to the most beautiful but primitive places in northern Canada to go fishing. She went along with it, and she got rewarded with a home in Florida" after Turanchik's father retired from the Federal Aviation Authority.

Adolescent experiences turned that environmental interest into concern: During a "pollution game" played in middle school, Turanchik says, he began to understand, and consequently fear, the ramifications of overpopulation. That same year, Cleveland's oil-drenched Cuyahoga River caught fire, virtually destroying all the river's wildlife for a full year. "I really thought that was horrible."

He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati intending to become a medical doctor. That goal changed after a freshman human ecology course again emphasized the dangers of sprawl and overpopulation; he eventually graduated with a bachelor's degree in ecology.

Afterward, he enrolled in Michigan State's zoology master's program. There, Turanchik says, he made what would become a life-changing discovery: "While I love basic research, basic research wasn't making the world a better place." He went to work in 1980 for John Anderson's idealistic, third-party presidential campaign, basically because he felt Anderson best reflected his environmental ethics.

When the campaign ended, Turanchik launched his foray into law -- first as an Ohio legislative intern, then as an Ohio State law student, and finally as a clerk for a federal judge.

In 1987, Turanchik, now a labor lawyer, packed everything in a U-Haul and drove to Florida. For one thing, he wanted to be closer to his parents; for another, he liked sailing -- and there's no better place to do that.

It didn't take long for him to immerse himself in local environmental circles. He first approached Sally Thompson, now a governing board member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, when she was introduced at a Tiger Bay Club meeting as an environmentalist.

"Ed came up to me and asked me who to get in contact with," Thompson says. "He had an interesting perspective because he came from a different state," she continues. "I thought that was good for Tampa."

The Sierra Club agreed and recruited Turanchik to assist with matters involving local government's comprehensive plan for land use. In a short time, she says, Turanchik had not only signed on as a member of the Sierra Club but also chaired its two committees for comprehensive planning and conservation. "`He's` very ambitious," she says.

That involvement led to the lawsuit against the county. "It's through that that I became very concerned with how we're growing," Turanchik says. "The fundamental issue hasn't gone away. Basically, Florida has done a very poor job managing its growth."

And then came the Ball-Boyette Scrub debate. It was 1989, and the county commission was considering rezoning 5,000 acres of wetlands and rare scrub habitat for a developer who envisioned homes, offices and commercial use on the land. Although the developer promised to preserve about 80 percent of the property in its natural state, Turanchik recalls, "I said, no way." Later, as a member of the county commission and eventually its chairman, his fight led to what was at the time the nation's second-largest environmental-lands acquisition program; the county ended up buying the Ball-Boyette Scrub for $16 million.

But it all started with that first debate. "That was my metamorphosis," he says. That's also when Commissioner Poe issued her ill-fated challenge. When the incumbent called on election night to concede defeat, Turanchik says, "I had lived `in Florida` exactly three years and four hours."

It would be seven more years before a constituent's phone call prodded his Olympic interest. By that time he had established himself as a fixture of Tampa Bay's political scene; at one point, it even appeared he was angling for a run at Tampa's mayor's office. Being newly married with two children, it was a move Turanchik decided against -- or at least put off.

"He's a very dangerous guy in terms of his political aspirations," says Tampa Bay political watchdog Owen Whitman. "He's very self-serving and quick to exploit political situations to his advantage. He's unerringly attracted to big-buck items."

That last part, at least, is true: During his tenure, Turanchik displayed a remarkable affection for long-term, region-redefining megaprojects such as light rail and the restructuring of the area's water authority.

"He's a visionary," says Sharon Dent, executive director of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. "Many elected officials are interested in what they do in their term of office," she continues. "Ed is a far-longer thinker than that. He thinks way, way out. What he's able to do -- he clearly understands the steps and intermediary decisions. He combines practicality and vision."

His visions, however, aren't always popular. Take rail. While in office, Turanchik pushed the issue so hard that he became known in newspaper editorials as "Commissioner Choo-Choo."

"He became so closely identified with rail," says longtime Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, "that there are those that attack rail because they don't like Ed."

In the end, the rail detractors won out. Last year, Hillsborough decided not to fund any sort of regional rail project, basically saying the projected number of riders wouldn't justify the $300 million cost.

And while the Sierra Club supports alternative modes of transportation, at least some members take issue with the Turanchik-led effort to restructure the former West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority into a utility now known as Tampa Bay Water.

"They've created a monster," says Sierra Club co-conservation chairman Denise Layne. "I don't know that Ed realized what Tampa Bay Water would evolve into. I know his heart was in the right place -- Ed tries to do really good things. Sometimes, things haven't worked out exactly as he thought they would."

Complaints focus on a proposed $100 million desalinization plant, which aims to replace the soon-to-be-restricted groundwater supply with salt water pulled from the bay. The need is driven by Tampa Bay Water's commitment to halve the amount of groundwater taken daily by 2007.

The plant may be a fine idea, Layne says, but the location isn't. From where it would sit, that plant will deposit 25 pounds of salt brine a day into the bay, which she fears will alter the bay's salinity and have a drastic effect on wildlife.

As an ecologist, Turanchik disagrees -- although he points out that the location was picked without his input.

Still, the issue could have been avoided, Layne says, had Tampa Bay Water opted for another proposed site -- one near the Gulf of Mexico.

But that's not the only outrage. Environmental activists say that, because of the power vested in Tampa Bay Water, local governments can no longer deny development permits based on a limited water supply -- even in a drought. Water service is guaranteed by the larger utility. Moreover, concurrent projects normally required as a condition for permit approvals -- such as the construction of a reservoir or dam -- and formerly financed by the developers are now paid by taxpayers.

"It's a developer's delight," says current Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Pat Frank. "How could any environmentalist have blindly walked into this? He's out of step with where people are." Big, expensive projects aren't what people want, she contends -- and Turanchik just doesn't get it.

To Tampa Bay Water executive director Jerry Maxwell, the dissension is all a matter of sour grapes: "Ed created a great deal of political jealousy," he says. After Turanchik left office, he says, it became a popular thing in local government to run against Turanchik's ideas. "Those who oppose Ed never came out when he was here," says Maxwell.

"Ed has a great deal of enthusiasm and perseverance for any project he pursues," says longtime county Commissioner Jan Platt, "and that antagonizes some people."

Still, there is a perception that Turanchik has watered down his environmental concerns. "He rode in as an environmentalist," Whitman says. "Then he moved on to, sort of, pro-business."

The ultimate evidence of that transition, it seems, is the Olympic Games. But did Turanchik's years in office sway him to side with business interests for the sake of power, as his critics contend? Or has he simply learned how to compromise?

"There's this thing that people don't realize," says Thompson, of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "When you're an environmental activist and not in the political arena, there's a lot of things you can do that you can't do `while in office`. It's a whole different ball game."

"`Turanchik` obviously matured," Dent says. "When you make more connections and understand what motivates people, you're more effective."

"He did change," says the Sierra Club's Layne. "Ed and I have had words on many occasions -- we're not always seeing eye-to-eye. But on basic issues, `we agree`. He's trying to strive for balance."

"Ed's very clearly pragmatic," says Maxwell. "But at the same time, he's very strong on issues that make a difference."

Turanchik says his experiences in county government led him to develop a "more sophisticated" view of growth management. "There's always a tension between how you want things to be and the system of laws that are already in place to constrain the action." He gives as an example the comprehensive plan he once sued the county over: While he was a member of the county commission, the issue was twice revisited. And even after being improved for the second time, Turanchik says, it's still only halfway to the point where he'd like to see it.

"I started out from a perspective that you have to regulate these things," Turanchik says. "But ultimately, growth management is where we make invitations as communities to encourage the right marketplace responses. Government can and should be a positive force in human progress." While he still believes in regulation, Turanchik says that by forcing growth toward cities and away from undeveloped areas, sprawl can be averted.

"I'm an urbanist," he says. "We believe fundamentally in the future of cities. `The Olympics` is a vision about how to connect up our cities -- how to make our cities more livable -- and that's good."

In that sense, Turanchik very much sees the Olympic bid as an extension of his environmental ethic: Better cities mean less sprawl. And Turanchik sees sprawl as the environment's worst enemy.

But the Olympics is a massive influx of growth. It necessitates new buildings and new infrastructure. How, some ask, can it possibly limit sprawl?

Commissioner Platt, who is also held in high regard in environmental circles, doesn't think it will. She says that, if anything, the Olympics will exacerbate an already bad situation.

"I understand that, I respect that view," Turanchik says. "I have that concern myself. But I also know that people are already coming here. The big issue is how you manage your future."

Future management is, indeed, the issue. For Turanchik, successful growth requires rail, and that's reflected in Florida 2012. "The transportation issue is the big issue in our bid," he says. "We've got to figure out a way of connecting together the airport in Orlando, the convention center and the attractions to Tampa and St. Pete.

"But," he adds, "you cannot make a huge capital investment based upon a 16-day event. You can only do it because you need it for everyday."

The effects of an inter-city rail line would be dramatic, Turanchik says, sounding a note similar to that heard for years around Orlando and Orange County before light rail imploded here last fall after running up $45 million in planning costs. Businesses and residents alike will relocate around the train stations, he insists. And because trains would cut through the heart of cities, they would push development in, rather than out toward undeveloped areas.

But rail -- and the rest of the bid's components -- will be expensive, and it's an expense Hillsborough County commissioners are wary of. Chairman Frank says the commission's support of the Olympics (it used $150,000 in tourism development money to finance its bidding fee) is conditioned on the event not requiring local residents to pay for it.

Turanchik doesn't think it will. Because the games will use more than 20 existing venues already in place along the I-4 corridor, construction costs won't be exorbitantly high. And that means the Olympics can be run at a profit, he says.

The problem isn't the construction, however. The fact is, after the games leave, any new venues must be maintained. "I'm a native of the Tampa Bay area," Platt says. "I've visited other `Olympic` areas `and seen` the shells that remain. The community has overbuilt. I don't want that."

The effect the Olympics will have is tough to judge as a whole, mainly because its details have yet to be unveiled. That, Turanchik says, will take place over the next six months. Then, it will be up to the communities to decide whether or not they want the games.

Early indications suggest it will. A March poll, conducted for the Orlando Sentinel, said 72 percent of Orlando residents supported Turanchik's effort, a mood that is echoed on the West Coast.

"People come up and tell me they're so excited about the Olympic games, and I ask them why," Turanchik says. "The majority reason: People say they support this because they think it will be fun, they think it will be a lifetime experience. It will be part of being part of human history -- and that's the best part."


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Read the Digital Print Issue

July 28, 2021

View more issues


© 2021 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation