Orlando is $61 million short in getting the performing-arts center off the ground. So the city and arts supporters are hitting up Teresa Jacobs, Orange County's mayor-elect, for an advance on almost half of it.
She might as well get used to people groveling for money.
I have long supported an arts center. But this is like old Uncle Al, flat broke with holes in his shoes, hitting you up for $500 because he's got a sure thing at the track.
Give it to him and you know he's coming back for more.
None of this is a surprise for those of us who have followed the saga of the three downtown venues — the arts center, the arena and the Citrus Bowl.
The county budget-crunchers knew this day was coming back in 2007 when they negotiated the $1.1 billion venues deal with Orlando. They thought Mayor Buddy Dyer and Co. were out of their fiscal minds for taking on this much risk.
So the county built a firewall.
It would give the city enough resort-tax money to build a new Magic arena for billionaire Rich DeVos.
But the performing-arts center and Citrus Bowl would have to get in line behind a long list of priorities already funded by the resort tax.
If Buddy's gamble failed, the county was protected.
On paper, at least. That doesn't take into account the intangible of political pressure that would accompany the request for a bailout. If you don't give us the money, the project will not get built, and it will be your fault.
Now that we are there, what will Jacobs do?
She is, by nature, a cautious fiscal conservative. In fact, it was Jacobs who put a caveat in the venues deal, requiring that the arts center be fully funded before any debt was issued to waste money on a Citrus Bowl renovation.
During the mayoral campaign, Jacobs was criticized for being too focused on details when the job required a big-picture consensus builder. Being branded as the person who killed the arts center wouldn't help that perception.
But there are so many pitfalls here, she could hardly be blamed for doing so. Here are a few of them:
•The city is broke, which raises the question of where it plans to come up with its half of the shortfall. The county also doesn't have a spare $30 million stuffed in a mattress, meaning it could be forced to raid a reserve fund set aside for the convention center. That would be ill-advised.
•This deal would allow construction of phase one of the arts center — an amplified arena for events such as Broadway shows and a small 300-seat theater. Will the city come back for another cash advance when it comes time to build phase two — a 1,700 seat acoustical hall?
•The county could be the money pile of last resort to cover operating deficits. Some of this tab was going to be paid by leasing property next to the center for a hotel and office building. But the economy put the kibosh on that.
There also are disturbing rumors about donors backing out of their pledges, which could create an even deeper fiscal hole for the county to fill down the road.
The problem in dealing with Orlando is that the city is tapped out. So the minute a bulldozer rolls onto the site, the county could find itself sucked into a black hole, from which there is no politically feasible escape.
At a minimum, Jacobs should insist that the city raise its $31 million share of the shortfall first. She then should demand to see an updated list of all donor pledges and the contracts they signed with the arts center.
The county needs some guarantee it won't bankroll operating expenses.
The city must agree not to spend any more money renovating the Citrus Bowl until the arts center is finished and its operating costs are known and accounted for.
Every dime the city spends on that empty stadium is another dime the county probably will have to make up for at the arts center.
Finally, Jacobs should insist the city contact Magic owner Rich DeVos about providing a loan, which would be repaid as resort-tax funds become available. He could take his interest out of the $10 million he has pledged to the arts center.
Jacobs has a lot of options. The worst one is writing out a check for $30 million with no questions and no demands.
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or email@example.com.