upcoming Epic Universe theme park. Universal Orlando had requested the funding, which elicited opposition from local labor and community activists.The Orange County (Florida) Commission voted 4-3 Tuesday night to fund up to $125 million dollars from a dedicated fund to help pay for the extension of Kirkman Road to the site of the
The vote was close, but it passed, helping ensure that the Epic Universe project will be completed as planned. Universal owns the site upon which it is building its third theme park, but needed the road expansion to help people actually be able to get to the park without further clogging the area's already traffic-choked roads. (Jason Garcia this evening tweeted an excellent thread explaining the whole deal.)
The state of Florida is kicking in $16 million for the extension, and Universal is on the hook for the balance of what it has estimated could be a $305 million project. The $125 million from the county is coming from Community Redevelopment Area funds that are collected from businesses in the International Drive area, to pay for road improvements in that area. The money cannot be used for other projects in the county.
And that was the issue that stirred opposition to the funding.
Here's some relevant context. A lot of people who work in the service industry are getting sick of falling further and further behind as their pay does not keep up with the costs of housing, transportation, health care, and other costs of living. Disneyland in California just went through a raucous and very public labor negotiation as workers argued for substantial pay increases, given the high cost of living in Southern California. In Central Florida, the Orlando Sentinel has just launched a multi-part series documenting how some people working in the local tourist industry can't make ends meet.
In that context, spending $125 million on yet another new road when so many people in Orange County need affordable housing and better public transportation strikes many people as absurd. But attacking this funding proposal is like setting a mouse trap to stop the wild boar that's trashing the yard. It's going after the wrong target.
On Theme Park Insider, I advocate for consumers, hourly park employees, themed entertainment designers, and the theme park industry - in that order. Yet the local residents around theme parks include many hourly park employees, so I generally support efforts to help them, too.
But I don't buy the suggestion that paying to expand a new road to support a major new theme park means that a local government can't also pay to take care of its residents, too. Tax revenue becomes a zero sum game pretty much only when elected officials are looking for an excuse to ignore a community. Many Orlando area residents, including many park and hospitality employees, feel ignored right now. They have every right to speak up and demand a better deal from their elected officials.
That said, writing on behalf of the people who spend all this money to visit Central Florida, tourists' taxes should fund projects for tourists. Once the tourism industry is established in a community, it should not become a tax burden on local residents - tourist taxes, including sales and hotel taxes, should pay the cost of maintaining roads and public services in those areas. But money flowing from a successful local tourism industry should not exempt those area residents who are capable of paying to support local services from having to pay their fair share, too.
Florida's got a lot of problems right now that are in no way the fault of Universal Orlando or its proposal to extend a road to serve the Epic Universe project. Yes, the area needs better public transportation to serve its residents. But creating an effective mass transit system isn't so much about having the money to buy buses and pay drivers as it is having the political will to zone communities so that mass transit makes sense. If you ignore mass transit until all the roads and neighborhoods are built, your bus system never will work. Like most communities, the Greater Orlando area has shown zero interest in making anything more than a token attempt at enforcing transit-oriented zoning and development. (The irony here is that Orlando's theme parks probably have the most popular bus services in the area.)
Yes, people working at the parks in Orlando need more affordable housing, too. But if the you want that, first ban Airbnb in the community, then come talk to me. Every unit rented via Airbnb is one less unit available for housing, driving up rents for people who work and want to live in the area. Make your visitors stay in hotels or timeshares and that means more housing units - and hotel taxes - for the community. Enact an unoccupied housing tax, too, while you're at it, to help ensure that housing is used for housing instead of for parking or laundering cash. That's more cash for the community.
And if you really want to have more money available for social services and responsible urban planning in Central Florida, allow me to say three very dirty words to many Floridians: state income tax. Heck, just taxing incomes in excess of $100,000 a year could help a lot of Florida's problems go away without putting any burden on most working-class and retired Floridians.
Anyway, Universal got its money, and the Kirkman Road extension is proceeding. But the frustration that almost killed this plan is not going away. Nor should it. But if the people who live in Central Florida and work in its theme parks (as I once did) want things to change for the better, they need to set their sights much, much higher than stopping a road deal.Tweet
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