Commentary

Mayors line up behind Orlando stadium deal

By Paul Kennedy

Is it too good to be true? Less than a year ago, no plans were in place, and Orlando officials were just starting to check out what other cities have done in terms of building MLS soccer stadiums.

No stadium proposal has moved along as quickly as Orlando City SC's plans for the construction of a $85 million soccer stadium in downtown Orlando necessary to win approval for an MLS expansion team.

And Orlando City SC moved one step closer to securing funding Thursday when Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer reached an agreement on a deal to provide financial support for a variety of Orlando projects.

The agreement, whose outline Jacobs and Dyer are expected to announce on Friday, calls for $94.5 million in tourism tax revenues and bonds to be used to contribute $20 million to the soccer stadium, complete pay for phase two on a performing-arts center and pay for enhancements to renovations of the Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando City's current home in USL PRO.

To say the least, Orlando is undergoing a construction boom. The 77-year-old Citrus Bowl, a World Cup 1994 venue, needs extensive work, and $191 million was committed for renovations even though it is only used for a few single-event college football games each year and Orlando City SC matches (until it gets a home of its own). The additional enhancements will add another $12 million to the cost of the project.

Additional money in the $94.5 million package Jacobs and Dyer agreed to will go toward improvements to the Orange County Convention Center and tourism and sports event marketing over the next five years. Local tourism interests had pushed back hard on plans for the sports facilities without an agreement on supporting tourism, the city's No. 1 industry.

The rest of the cost of $85 million for the soccer stadium will be paid for by Orlando City SC or from other public sources. The city of Orlando has been buying up downtown parcels to create the site for the stadium.

Dyer has been behind the project, but getting Jacobs on board is a coup for the Orlando soccer stadium supporters. The deal will still need approval of county commissioners, and Orlando City SC will still need approval from MLS on its own plans for the club.

Will it all go smoothly? The Orlando Sentinel reported that several citizens groups oppose the soccer stadium, though the head of one group does not believe it will matter.

"A lot of people have gotten the feeling that the elected officials are in the pocket of the individuals who are behind this," Doug Head, president of the bipartisan watchdog group CountyWatch, said before Thursday's announcement. "The public just gives up because they are going to do what they are going to do. Resistance is futile."
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