Why No Confidence

In WP’s Largest Public Works Project?

Guest Columnist Charley Williams

The planned Canopy project may be the largest public works project ever undertaken by the City of Winter Park. Approved in 2016, the Library, Events Center and Parking Garage referendum garnered a slim majority of 214 votes, out of over 10,618 votes cast.

 

 

Campaign Literature in 2015-16 Promised Cost Levels

New Library: $17,435,700
New Events Center: $ 3,004,943
Parking Deck: $ 3,004,943
Shared Costs: $ 8,405,496

(demolition, design/engineering, landscaping, site work)

Library Board to Raise: $ 2,500,000

TOTAL PROJECT COST $ 29,914,311 with a promised 15 percent contingency

Three years later, why does the public continue to be skeptical about the chances for success?

Why is public trust in this project, funded by taxpayer dollars, continuing to falter? The answers to these questions are not difficult. Look at the project track record over the past four years. Promises were made, then discarded. Trust evaporated. The trend line below speaks for itself.

Original Pledges

  • $29.9 million project with a 15 percent contingency
  • 50,000 square foot library
  • LEED-certified building including solar energy capacity
  • Multi-deck parking garage to ensure easy access, safety and security for patrons
  • Footprint that takes no more than 1 percent of MLK Jr Park acreage
  • A site suitable to build upon with no extraordinary contamination or soil stability issues
  • Storm water plan that could be addressed without taking more parkland
  • A transparent process open to public comment, with all commissioners kept in the loop
  • Project focus is a world class library and a community events center
  • Robust community fundraising support assured
  • CRA funds unlikely to be needed and should be reserved for other city priorities, like the purchase of the Post Office property.

The Path Forward

  • Price tag increased to $40+ million and is tilting toward $50 million
              Note: Taxpayer dollars restricted to the original $30 million bond limit
  • Greatly reduced contingency fund resulting from a challenging construction environment
  • Library size reduced to 34,400 square feet with no LEED certification
  • No parking garage, requiring consumption of more park space for parking lots
  • No traffic study of Morse & Harper to address congestion and safety issues
    Note: Plan proposed to model the entire Orange Avenue MLK Park region
  • Continued flooding of Morse and Harper with no approved storm water plan
              Note: Lake Mendsen is currently at capacity, per St Johns River WMD
  • Complex site issues with debris buried to 30-35 feet and muck.
              Note: Building site has been shifted west to avoid muck pockets.
  • Trees removed without public notice or involvement.
              Note: There is a moratorium on future tree removal.
  • Consumption of MLK Park acreage now in excess of 15 percent of park space, and
  • Lake Mendsen could be further expanded by taking 1-2 more park acres.
              Note: There is some effort to dial back the size of the project footprint.
  • Lack of Transparency — the last comprehensive public forum on the project was the April 9, 2018 City Commission Meeting approving Schematic Designs.
  • Tourism as priority pitched to Orange County Tourist Development Council (TDC) — our own “I-Drive.”
  • One commissioner was not informed of TDC meeting and the request for $6 million.
  • Fundraising from the community still not accounted for, though the deadline was April 2019.
  • CRA funds will likely be tapped to bail out this project.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr: still has not been honored as the namesake of this park.

What if This Were Your Own Health?

Citizens have not been presented with a satisfactory explanation for this list of discrepancies. This is the chance for the commission to step forward and demonstrate leadership.

If this project were a medical patient, we could say we have seen the X-Rays and indicators of a potential complication are all there.

If we wait seven more months, until January, when construction pricing comes due, we then face a crisis decision of whether to administer chemo or radiation or both. Why not take preventive measures now? Get a second opinion? If your health was at stake, what would you do?

Maybe change medical providers?

Can We Afford This Project?

For many, the fiduciary handwriting is on the wall: we cannot afford this project.

No wonder the citizenry is concerned.

Cost estimates and overruns will not diminish. Instead, they will likely increase. Change orders will become a major concern. Our Central Florida construction market is robust but stressed, increasing pressure on construction costs. That context has already been established with the I-4 Ultimate, Orlando Airport’s New South Terminal and the building boom.

Commissioners Need the Chance to Talk to One Another

At the June 10 Commission meeting, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper requested a workshop so the Commission as a whole could discuss various budget issues, including the Canopy and the CRA, without having to go through the City Manager. She was dismissed by Mayor Steve Leary, but her suggestion deserves reconsideration.

Recommendation: Give Us the Benefit of Your Shared Vision

Hold a Workshop.

Put the questions on the table and explore some answers together.

Educate a very concerned public.

How Much Can the Camel Carry?

In the case of the Canopy, it is reasonable to say that a $1,000 per square foot public works project is unacceptable. So, what is acceptable? $700 per square foot? $500 per square foot? $350 per square foot? That guide star needs to be established — or at least discussed – and the public needs to hear the discussion.

If we cannot attain that acceptable price per square foot, alternative scenarios need to be explored. When a project moves beyond 60 percent design, the time and money already invested make it increasingly difficult to say “no” or even to change tack.

Think Big: Where is Plan B?

The goal is to maximize all our assets to make this project the best it can be. For this reason, the process deserves heightened public involvement, heightened communication and heightened stewardship by our elected leaders.

Are our taxpayer dollars being wisely spent? If so, show us how.

That’s how public trust can be restored.

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    By: Anne Mooney

    Anne Mooney has assumed the editorship of the Winter Park Voice from founding editor Tom Childers.

    Mooney got her start in New York as a freelance line editor for book publishers, among them Simon & Schuster and the Clarkson Potter division of Crown Books. From New York, she and her husband and their year-old toddler moved to Washington, D.C., where the two ran a newswire service for Harper’s magazine. “We called it Network News,” said Mooney, “because it was a network of the Harper’s writers, whose work we edited into newspaper style and format and sold to papers in the top U.S. and Canadian markets. We were sort of like a tiny UPI.”

    The newswire ceased operation with the death of Mooney’s first husband, but Mooney continued to write and edit, doing freelance work for Williams Sonoma cookbooks and for local publications in D.C.

    In 2005, Mooney moved to Winter Park, where she worked as a personal chef and wrote a regular food column for a south Florida magazine. She took an active interest in Winter Park politics and was there when the Winter Park Voice was founded. She wrote occasional pieces for the Voice, including the Childers bio that this piece replaces.

    The Winter Park Voice is one of a large number of “hyper-local” publications that have sprung up across the U.S. in response to the decline of the major daily newspapers and the resulting deficit of local news coverage. The Voice’sbeat is Winter Park City Hall, and its purpose is to help the residents of our city better understand the political forces that shape our daily lives.

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