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Apopka City Council

Benge, Manley scold City Council on rejecting Station Street project

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Public comments in a city council meeting are an opportunity for citizens to speak their minds before their elected leaders. At Apopka City Council meetings, public comments range from residents voicing their issues to non-profits asking for donations, to schools announcing events. Sometimes there are complaints of about an issue that affects an individual. Other times community leaders and business owners are critical of the Council.

And then there was the Wednesday, February 2nd Apopka City Council meeting.

 At the January 19th meeting, the Apopka City Council voted 5-0 to reject the proposal of Standard Investments and Holdings LLC to create a downtown Apopka mixed-use project consisting of retail, office, and/or residential development using 3.4 acres of property purchased from the City. The RFP, (Request for Proposal) was an invitation for qualified developers to bid on the project.

That rejection concerned Mina Robinson, of the Apopka-based Small Business Advocates of Central Florida, but it sent shockwaves through Cate Manley (the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO), and Tony Benge (part of the group that made the bid).

"The concern from the community is mainly just to ensure that something that's going on for this [south] side of town development can be fruitful for business owners, as well as the community is not held up in politics," said Robinson. "I know Commissioner Smith mentioned in that meeting that he wanted to see minority participation on that RFP. I know Commissioner Velazquez said that she wanted to see more businesses that could come in and have retail there in that area. Those are the concerns of the community. We don't care about politics. We want station Street. And we want it to move forward."

A vote he would change

Commissioner Doug Bankson, who originally voted against the proposal, made it clear that he would vote for it today.

"I wanted to put it on the record, I regret that I didn't vote yes, even though it wouldn't have gone at that point," Bankson said. "But just in the climate of everything, it just seemed dead in the water. Because of this, we had the opportunity after seeing it move forward. I prefer to have multiple people involved in that. But we had someone willing to do that... willing to come in and, you know, some politicization got involved in that. But we lost an opportunity to at least consider... and at least tell them this is what we'd like to see because it will benefit not only South Apopka but all of Apopka. So that's on me; but when I had time to reflect on that, I regret that I didn't go ahead and vote for that... at least give us the opportunity to look at it. We could have still said no. And so hopefully in the future, we'll take that time to really consider those things in the whole and not get caught in a momentary situation."

Commissioner Kyle Becker, who was the catalyst of the rejection of the RFP, stood by his vote.

"We can say politics, but I'll stick with my principal guideline, based off the comments that I made in the prior hearing, and Monday, [in the debate] earlier this week. When I brought up my issues, there was no rebuttal from either participants, staff evaluation committee, applicant, to people that submitted that request to address my concerns on that RFP submittal. So yeah, there were probably three reasons why I motioned to reject the bid. And that's one of three. But I stand by the decision that I made."

A scathing rebuke of the City Council

Manley followed Robinson in public comments and was far more scathing in her remarks to the City Council.

"I've gotten a lot of feedback in the last couple of weeks since the last time I was here to present about the economic development package, the website, the press release, and video. I wanted to make sure that there's an understanding of the structure of the Chamber of Commerce," Manley said. "The Chamber of Commerce is an independent organization. We are not City employees. We do not work for the City, however, the City is actually a member of the Chamber of Commerce, as are many other people... several of which are in here. I also would like to mention that it is a pleasure to be a partner with the City. And most of the commissioners are very, very engaged with what we have going on. And even with regard to bringing developers in. We have collaborative partners on City Commission on City staff who come in, as well as the mayor, to help us to either greet them, give them information when we're bringing in some organizations who want to invest in our community. I'd also like to briefly address the fact that whenever, if you notice, we have any of our members... we have 474 members today that is business members, so that means multiple people in their organizations, are members... we always try to be here for our members when they're meeting with Council because we are a liaison between our businesses and the City, either City processing, permitting... we try to be a liaison because a lot of times I'm the only person, or one of my staff are the only people they know that they can come to when they are here to present to commission or Council. With that being said, I'm here today, representing a couple of my members, that will also be coming up to speak in a little bit. So I want to make sure that that is understood, that we don't take a position other than to be advocates to our businesses. I would like to address that with regard to those of you who collaborate with the commission or with the chamber, that you are sometimes aware of things through the chamber because we are a business entity, structurally, bringing in investors and potential businesses such as the Station Street Project. While I did not deliberately or specifically have a conversation with anyone here, prior to that RFP conversation, I want to remind everybody that that conversation, that vote was not to approve the RFP but to just get it to that next level, where it would have been open to the community to know some of the really exciting projects that were in play for that developer. I spent about nine months working with a private education institution to bring them here, they spent money to fly here, they brought their leadership here, and I helped them do feasibility studies, for employment and training programs that they would offer here, both medical, vocational, IT, and it was very disappointing when that didn't move forward. So you could have known about those opportunities, especially because they specifically serve underserved communities and minority populations in all of their other schools. So I just wanted to kind of mention that I have had conversations with many of you after. I appreciate so much, Commissioner Bankson... your comment that you regret that it didn't move forward. I desperately regret that it didn't go forward, because I've spent a lot of time and effort, and extra hours, helping that organization because they really wanted to be the anchor in this community. And unfortunately, I had brought two developers to the table; one could not afford to submit an RFP at that level without a signed anchor, and the other could and did. So. It's unfortunate, but I wanted to make mention of that and let you know, your chamber is working for you. We're working together, we're working for this community. We do have diversity and inclusion committees. You have all the opportunities in the world to be engaged with the chamber. And we try to pick up on anything that isn't already being worked on through the City, like senior services, there's no department, and we've partnered recently to put together a committee for that as well. So that's, that's really all I had to say."

Nelson, who also voted against the project, described the plan as a missed opportunity.

"I know we got the chance to meet with the group that's out of Puerto Rico," said Nelson. "We went out to their campuses... one in Osceola County, they're kind of flagship one, and then one in DeLand. And so it would have been a pretty exciting opportunity for us to have a technical school here [for those] that didn't want to get a four-year degree or those that have a four-year degree as well. So that would have been a great opportunity, you know, we missed, but maybe we can bring it back."

Commissioner Diane Velazquez wished she had more details before voting against the proposal.

"So, this is the question that I have," she said. "The mayor gets to meet with these different groups, and sometimes by the time something is brought to us at the council, that's all the information that's missing for us. You met with the group from Puerto Rico. That would have been a great opportunity. When we need to support a development, a developer will reach out to each of us or we reach out to them. What is it you're bringing to this community? What are you building? What's your product? I mean, I use [City Administrator] Ed Bass when I have a lot of questions. So here you are, you're presenting this. It's a missed opportunity. But guess what? We didn't know that. When the RFP was presented by James Hitt there was so much information missing."

"But Commissioner Velazquez, the problem is the RFP wasn't presented," said Manley. "It was only an opportunity for them to go negotiate for it to be presented later. And that would have been the opportunity. The unfortunate thing is, there was a politicization of the timing and all of that. And unfortunately, the casualty is development, education, workforce, and this is something that everybody says we don't do, that we do. And so, unfortunately, this was dramatically missed."

"How do we, as an individual commissioner... each of us have an idea of what's being brought like today," said Velazquez. "This gentleman came in. He spoke to me before, but when he made his presentation, the only commissioner that's been involved is Commissioner Smith. I had no idea this was even in existence that he was going to present it. I mean, I'm for it. Because anything that's going to lift our youth, and help people get out and get a job and get a GED. I'm all for it. But why was only one person on this dais aware of this?"

"So I hear you," said Manley. "I think that's really important to know is..."

"We need to figure out a way that our individual commissioners, at least get some information," said Velazquez. " Just something that we can support individually, and say, okay..."

"Had I known that, that because it was not an acceptance of an RFP, I left after my presentation," said Manley. "If I thought it was something that would be contentious at all, I would have stayed and I am not under a cone of silence and could have said something. So that, you know, because I had built a relationship for both of the parties. So I could have if I'd known, but because it was not to accept an RFP, it was only to accept the opportunity to move forward and have a conversation about it, and to negotiate it when it becomes then public, then I had no idea that that would happen. However, I will just caution and say that for you, you guys are commissioners, this is your job. This is your part-time job, some of you, but it is your job. And it's your job to understand what is the process that people go through for RFP. That is not my job, you can Google it, you can check, you can do workshops, but you can find out other ways and then also grants. It's not my position to come in and teach you how to do it. It's yours. It's your position to learn it. And it's not the responsibility of the community to teach you how to do it before you vote on it."

"No, that's not what I was talking about," said Velazquez. "Not the RFP but the information of projects that are interested... or entities that are interested in coming into the city."

"Come to the chamber more," said Manley.

'Congratulations, you've just committed a federal offense'

As scathing as Manley's remarks were, they paled in comparison to Benge's tirade - who invoked civil rights violations, potential lawsuits against the City, and various expletives to describe his ire towards the City Council.

"I was the lone bidder in your RFP process," said Benge. "Our team spent $35,000 and countless hundreds of hours working with our architects, engineers, planners... the same ones that are involved with Floridian Town Center, plus two other large developments we have here in Apopka. For our trouble, I was personally insulted and had accusations leveled at me by Mr. Becker. That because I opted to exercise my God-given right to support a political candidate of my choice... that was the basis of the denial of the RFP. I'm glad Mr. Becker said today that he stands by what he said. So let me just dive in, in case anyone didn't know... at exactly four hours and 47 seconds into the video, he says 'I will state there has been a max contribution to the mayor's reelection bid from the interests that are tied to the LLC for the single bid put in for this process. And that alone should be enough for this to go back to the market. And I put forth a motion that we reject this bid and put the RFP back into the market.' Congratulations. You just committed a federal offense. You discriminated against me... based on my political choice and use that as the sole basis to disqualify the RFP and as disgusting as that is... the fact that the City now won't get a $10 million investment. We reallocated that money to Titusville. So we're building 350 apartments next to SpaceX and project Kraken, that will be far more lucrative for our company. Apopka will suffer. Perhaps Mr. Becker and his family would like to guarantee the $10 million loan and go do the project himself... because it has such sizzle. Well, that sizzle sir, with the contamination on the site next to the railroad tracks. And if you read the RFP, the city wants to sell a roughly three acre parcel but they want half of it back improved for $900,000. And you wonder why you didn't get a lot of bids. Contaminated site adjacent to the rail tracks, unbelievable restrictions on what can be done, but we're willing to do it to help Apopka. And for that effort, you insulted me. You inferred that somehow I was corrupt. I'm spending over $750 million in your community bettering it. You were at the debate the other night and had a temper tantrum about restaurants. I brought Apopka the first James Beard award-winning restaurant it will have. Is there a thank you? No. You insult me and insinuate I was corrupt. I don't know who I'm more disappointed with... the fact that you all voted to terminate, not even having known what the hell was in it. And as you're all sitting here now trying to reset the record, shame on you all. That was a very tiresome, difficult, expensive RFP to prepare for. We did our part, was it even considered? No, you haven't even looked at it. Instead, because I made a donation, a lawful donation, that was the basis of being terminated. You know, something's really wrong when I go into the office the next day, and I've got to go through every message of every attorney I've ever worked with, begging me to hire them to sue the City now under a civil rights violation. I don't want to do that. Why do I want to hurt the people of Apopka because somebody decided to politicize an RFP for their own campaign? But I'm going to hold back whether or not I am going to go after something with this. Because my lawyers feel I've got a damn good case for it. But I'm just more disappointed that after everything we've done, and since you like keeping score, who does donations... In the last few years, I've donated $16,000 to Shop with a Cop, $10,000 to the chamber. We wrote a $50,000 check to the City of Apopka when we started that to bring on new help for you guys. Does that get mentioned? No. Just the fact I supported one candidate who you don't like, and you decided to use this moment and all the work leading up to this RFP to make your political grandstand. So every time you drive by a vacant site, thank Kyle Becker. He didn't want growth in the city. For Mr. Economic Development, you just conducted a masterclass on what not to do. So I am beyond disgusted, disappointed, but I'm really, just I'm stunned. What the hell were y'all thinking?"

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Apopka City Commissioner Kyle Becker, Apopka City Commissioner Diane Velazquez, Apopka City Commissioner Alexander Smith, Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Cate Manley, Tony Benge, Being Development, Small Business Advocates of Central Florida

Comments

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  • Kellycord

    Just reading this it sounds like this meeting was completely ridiculous. We absolutely should NOT do business with Benge after that tirade! If he did donate to Nelson's campaign, he should NOT get the bid. That is clear politics. He obviously thinks he is talking to a bunch of country bumpkins who don't know anything! And Manley is only in charge of the Chamber, don't know why she is even speaking so strongly on this? Everyone I know wants a "NICE" towncenter with nice restaurants and good retail stores. We want to UPGRADE Apopka, not fill it with more things that are put together in a quilt-like pattern. We need a cohesive town and it CERTAINLY is not that right now! If we get some crappy business' in the RFP process. Close the RFP and re-open it again when we have decent folks applying. It would be better to wait & solicit better contractors, than give it some jerk.

    Friday, February 4 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Sounds like there was more fighting at the city council meeting than at the wrestling arena. I think things are getting way too personal with some comments I see posted on various websites. I mean, put yourself in the candidate's place. Who would ever want to run for council, and face such harsh comments? I didn't get to attend the debate, because I had trouble with the Apopka Chamber of Commerce website registering. Apparently, other people had trouble with the website too. Why not do away with registering for debates? I did not care for Ms. Manley, the chamber CEO, speaking so harshly to our council members either.

    Friday, February 4 Report this

  • MamaMia

    I can't blame Mr. Benge for being angry! He was let down, after doing so much for Apopka. I had no idea he had donated so much money to our town's causes. I guess what stunned me, was when the RFP vote came down with all the council members voting "NO" on it. I don't get it. I think the project would have been nice. It is a brownfield area, for certain. You know over at Winter Garden, where the Starlight Drive In movies used to be shown, there are apartments there now, right next to the railroad, almost too close to the railroad! IMO

    Saturday, February 5 Report this

  • Forapopka

    Here we go again. Another missed opportunity for Apopka!!!!!! Kyle Becker is to blame for this. He politicized the heck of this and AGAIN Apopka misses out on the start of something great.

    4 years ago Nelson brought people outside of Apopka Supporting JK. Now 4 years later Becker is doing the same at the expense of the city (station street). And when are they going to bring this back up for a vote? What’s stupid is the following they have regarding people outside Apopka contributing to a candidate. Could they be friends? I mean cmon its stupid. The fact none of them knew it wasn’t a commitment but a vote to move forward to release additional information is embarrassing for all of them. Bankston realizes it was a stupid decision, Velasquez realized it was a mistake due to a lake of info, Smith realized it was a mistake but Becker stands by his moral convictions in spite of how its affecting Apopka. Even after the Chambers CEO and the Small Business council spoke Becker had egg on his face but this is what happens when you play politics. Becker needs to stop listening to his campaign manager the Apopka Critic because it may cause him the election. I don’t care for nelson but becker isn’t looking like a rose either. The fact is he’s been in office for 8 years and has done what?

    Monday, February 7 Report this