Hello City Council. It's been a while since we talked. How have you been?
A lot has happened, but unfortunately, a lot has not happened as well. I'll get to that shortly, but first, let me tell you a short story before we begin...
When I was on the sports desk at The St. Petersburg Times many moons ago, I worked for Hubert Mizell - truly one of the great sports writers in American history.
One of Mizell's most popular columns was called "Whatever Happened To?" In this weekly article, he would write several mini thoughts (notes) about sports subjects and, between paragraphs, ask, "Whatever Happened To?" a former sports figure out of the limelight.
For example, whatever happened to Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote, or Bud Harrelson (those are for you, Stuart Morrell).
Mizell would sprinkle names like that throughout the column, and before Google search existed, it would make for interesting conversations recalling the player and speculating on "whatever happened to them?".
In Apopka, unfortunately, the "Whatever happened to's?" aren't about sports figures, and they aren't from years ago. Every single one of these issues happened no later than 2022. So in honor of my old boss Mr. Mizell, here is the Apopka version of "Whatever Happened To?"
I wrote about this in June and have heard almost nothing from the City Council about ideas to get Taurus Investments (the developers of the city center) moving forward on bringing Apopka the City Center it was touting in 2016.
Yes, the Winn Dixie opened, and I have absolutely no issue with another supermarket in Apopka, but let's face reality... It's not really part of the master plan of most city centers. It's time to let Taurus know their time is quickly running out, and a city waits for a revised plan and positive movement.
Look, I get it... You held two workshops and a town hall, and things didn't go well.
I would argue that focusing your presentation on the costs the City would incur (twice!) rather than the benefits to South Apopka residents was an interesting choice, but clearly, there are no bridges from City Hall to South Apopka right now.
Commissioner Alexander Smith called for a South Apopka Committee to analyze the best pathway to annexation. He also called for a plan to annex South Apopka in five years.
"Annexation is a topic that is not going anywhere and needs to be addressed. My recommendation is for the city to appoint a committee to begin serious negotiations with the County and the residents in the unincorporated areas of Apopka. It's time for Apopka to become united rather than divided down the middle of a road. A price tag should not be put on the quality of life or be the determining factor whether to annex or not. Do the human thing, which is the right thing, by annexing and investing in all of Apopka. A true "One Apopka" should be our goal!"
Those are 103 pretty strong words, Commissioner Smith. I was impressed and inspired at the time. Unfortunately, two months later, I wrote an article about the lack of action in South Apopka. Now, well over a year since those words, I would ask, 'What are the next 103 words, Commissioner Smith?'
Another reality that the City Council, particularly Mayor Bryan Nelson, needs to face is this:
You can't be a great city on the one hand and also tell South Apopka they are better off in Orange County on the other. If that's the case, why not annex ALL of Apopka into Orange County?
It was an idea also suggested by Smith, implemented by the Council, and then quietly all but disappeared. I saw they are hosting a few events, but now I can't even get a list of committee members through a public records request.
Here is the level of importance Smith placed on it in 2022:
"During the election cycle, diversity, inclusion, and equity were topics in each debate," he wrote in a statement after the meeting. "The makeup of our city is very diverse, and it became obvious during the discussions that it's a subject that needs attention. That's why I asked the mayor to appoint a Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Commission and allow each Commissioner to appoint one person to the Commission. Its role would be to establish communication, respect, goodwill, understanding, and equity inclusive of all citizens and businesses in Apopka. There are five "P's" I believe will address many of the issues that concern Apopka residents: People, Programs, Projects, Policies, and Partnerships. It's a tall order, but we can accomplish it."
Those are 118 pretty strong words, Commissioner Smith. I was impressed and inspired at the time... So what are the next 118 words now that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee is an afterthought?
It came after years of pushing for the position, mostly by Commissioner Kyle Becker. Finally, after the winning vote, Becker said this:
"Let's do the right search, get the right credentials, get the right background, and get the right person so that they can hit the ground running and build a team that they need to build as any other organization does, whether it's in the public realm or private industry. We've got to spend a little to make more returns."
Those are 59 words, Commissioner Becker, that unfortunately became prophetic in what didn't happen.
Unfortunately, the first attempt at finding a qualified candidate landed no one, and a second effort also seems to be coming up short. Yes, I know it's in the budget and was discussed a couple of months ago, but can we possibly get someone on the City Council to follow up on the progress for what could turn out to be the most important position in Apopka?
What are the next 59 words, Commissioner Becker, to make what you fought so hard for a reality?
I know there is a great affordable housing development sitting by accident in the middle of the Apopka City Center, but that was by accident. At the May 4th, 2022 meeting, Smith made this suggestion:
"A couple of items that I would like to recommend to our Council and to the mayor to give that direction to staff," Smith said. "When looking at the crisis that we're now experiencing with affordable housing, let's look at the possibility of declaring a housing state of emergency in the city of Apopka and pursuing a rent stabilization program."
That would definitely be a heavy lift for a municipality to make a move like that, but without the follow-up, the idea or any form of affordable housing is going to die on the vine. Smith went on to tell a story about a local family struggling with a rental issue.
"I received a call this morning," Smith said. "A husband and wife are having to move out of the place they're renting currently because the landlord is not going to renew the lease... because [the landlord] can get more money in [a new] lease. They're looking for a place to live... so we can look at declaring a housing state of emergency."
Smith stressed the point even more in a text he sent The Apopka Voice after the meeting.
"It's important that we address affordable/workforce housing. The situation is getting worse, and it does not appear that it's going to get better any time soon. Working-class people find themselves homeless, struggling to make ends meet, and putting stress on their families. Tenants who pay more than 30% of their income on rent are rent-burdened, meaning they have fewer resources to pay for other basic needs for themselves and their families. Declaring a housing state of emergency in this crisis may be the only relief at this time. Pursuing some rent stabilization program to help those struggling could be a lifeline."
I'm sure you are getting the theme by now, Commissioner Smith. Those are 224 very inspiring words that I would like to hear if I were struggling to pay my rent in Apopka like the family you referenced. But without action or follow-up, they are just that - words. Now, well over a year since those words, I would ask you, 'What are the next 224 words, Commissioner Smith?'
These are but a few of the thoughts, suggestions, recommendations, and ideas brought forth by the City Council and then either went uncompleted, forgotten, stalled, or just not followed up on. It's become a bad trend - an idea from a commissioner wins consensus on Council and then is never heard about again. Maybe the next hire the City should consider is an experienced NFL punter to assist in the "kicking the can down the road" tactics this Council has used over the past several months.
Oh, and whatever happened to T. J. Houshmandzadeh? (That one is for you, Rogers Beckett.)
And for you, City Council... whatever happened to being proactive? I would love to hear some or all of you asking the tough follow-up questions at today's meeting about these and many other issues that seem to be lost in the wind.