The Apopka City Council voted 5-0 at its January 19th meeting to reject the proposal of Standard Investments and Holdings LLC (SIH) 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, however, only one proposal was received.
And part of the reason for the Council's rejection can be linked to campaign contributions in the Apopka Mayoral election.
Both Tony Benge (Benge Advisers LLC) and 654 Ventures Inc. are listed as principals for SIH, and both have made donations to Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson’s campaign. Benge's wife also hosted a fundraiser for Nelson a few weeks ago in Winter Park. Benge is the President of Benge Development Corporation, which is currently developing the $500 million-plus Floridian Town Center mixed-use project in Apopka and submitted a letter of intent to purchase the city-owned Harmon Road properties.
According to Jim Hitt, the Apopka Community Development Director, and the agenda packet provided for the January 19th City Council meeting, the City formed an evaluation committee that included Hitt, Shakenya Harris-Jackson, Grant Administrator; Nicole Kennedy, Sustainability Coordinator; Kenneth Goodwin, Executive Director for Homes In Partnership, Inc.; and Monique Morris, Apopka citizen.
The evaluation committee reviewed and assessed the submittal based on the scoring criteria outlined in the solicitation: qualifications of the development team, quality of design proposal, value to the City, financial viability, and financial return. On January 12th, 2022, a virtual evaluation committee meeting was held and gave SIH a score of 86 out of 105 points.
"All five members of the evaluation committee meeting are recommending an intent to negotiate with Standard Investments and Holdings LLC," said Hitt.
But the City Council had several questions and concerns.
"The biggest red flag for me on this one is obviously we put an RFP out to the street, and we get one response," said Commissioner Kyle Becker. "That's a red flag... because you don't have a variety [of proposals]. That's what happened with our city center with Taurus [Southern Investments], and we see where that's at. I think we should learn our lessons."
Becker, who is running for Mayor of Apopka against Nelson, also took issue with campaign donations made by Benge and 654 Ventures.
"I think it should be publicly known that the interests that are part of this bid process have ties to people that are running on this Council. So I just want to make sure that it's only a one bid response, and there are multiple interests of the people that are bidding that had direct ties to campaign contributions for a member of this council. I just want to put that out there for public consumption."
Becker also pressed Hitt on his efforts to present the project to potential developers who may have bid on the project.
"I'm just saying you're not making personal contact with people to sell them on it," he said. "I can tell you right now, decision-makers are going to want to feel like what they're about to do or enter into is going to be a great investment for them. And if no one on our staff is selling them on that vision, that's why we get one RFP response."
But Apopka City Attorney Michael Rodriguez reminded Becker of the private nature of RFP's once they are published.
"Commissioner Becker, with all due respect, once a matter is advertised, there is a cone of silence," he said. "Local government cannot solicit nor try to basically advertise itself to bidders without violating that cone of silence."
"So no contact whatsoever is permissible?" Becker asked.
"No," said Rodriguez.
"Okay. Thank you... thank you for putting that on the record," said Becker.
Commissioner Diane Velazquez questioned Hitt on the process and the project's timetable.
"I understand the RFP, the cone of silence. But this committee, I'd like to see what their input was in how the scores were determined," she said. "So now you're saying the project will start in two years, completing in four years. That's a very vital area and a lot of what we're trying to do is trying to move our city center... so that it becomes a realization. So you're really telling us it's going to take four years to complete?"
"That's the maximum," said Hitt. "If they come back and say, 'hey, we can do it in three years, and we'll turn the park over to you in a year, a year and a half', that's all part of it. I would love to have it done in a year, or a year and a half. But there is a little bit more to do."
Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass also weighed into the discussion to clarify the evolution and intent of the RFP, and to give the Council two options for moving forward.
"So we did a bid process. We received one bid, unfortunately, and I will tell you this, I was hoping we would receive more," he said. "We wanted more. But unfortunately, we only received one. Had we received two bids or more, you would, tonight, be awarding one of them. In this case, we only had one. So what you're doing tonight from a procurement standpoint, you have to make a decision for staff to go forward and negotiate and bring back their plans. I can envision a workshop, once the cone of silence is done, and then staff can meet with you one on one, and we can talk about those issues, you know, that things that you want to see... and we can work through those negotiations. What you're doing tonight... saying to negotiate does not commit you to a contract or an agreement with this company. All you're telling us is to go forward, negotiate, and bring back the information... and then if you still can't get to an agreement in that negotiation, then we're done. We're done and it's dead."
The second option Bass presented was to simply start the process over.
"Now the other option you have tonight that you can do as well, is you can say, 'staff, I don't like that one. I want to get more bids... try to get more bids.' I will tell you that our procurement worked hard to get bids. But again, that would just lengthen the process. And we could... you could tell us to throw it all out and start all over."
Becker, however, referenced the history of this project beginning well before 2021.
"So this RFP was supposed to go out in January 2019," he said. "If you'll recall, when we started having our regular weekly meetings, I remember specifically putting down in Q-1 of 2019, that this RFP is supposed to go out to market. The reason publicly stated every single time was that we didn't have the staff to write the RFP. And I think we're all in agreement there. This didn't go out until 2021. So I can appreciate our counsel saying that, okay, once the bid goes out, you're in this cone of silence. But we had over two years to get market excitement. But we've had plenty of opportunities to build interest and sell the value proposition of this Station Street area."
He also referenced the potential conflict of interest that existed between Nelson and principals in the project.
"I want to caution this Council that typically in campaigns there's interest in the community developers, engineering companies, etc, that donate to campaigns," he said. "It's part and parcel of these things. [But] an RFP is a little bit different of a beast, because of the things that you're describing here, cones of silence, and not being able to talk about concept plans in a public forum. Again, I will state that there have been maximum [$1,000] contributions to the mayor's reelection bid from interests that are tied to the LLC... the single bid in this process. That alone should be enough for this to go back to the market. And I would put forth the motion that we reject this bid and put the RFP back out into the market."
But Commissioner Doug Bankson didn't see the lone bid as evidence of political foul play.
"My only question is how do other people not responding reach the place where there are shenanigans going on?" He asked.
"I'm not claiming shenanigans," said Becker.
"I'm uncomfortable that we only have one [bid] as well," said Bankson.
"And that's where I was going to be at," said Becker. "But when I look into these things more, how can I go to members of the public and say, 'Yeah, I went ahead and awarded a contract. And oh, by the way, one of the interests in that LLC hosted a campaign event for one of the people running for this council, and another one was a max donor in the last contribution list.' One plus one is not equaling two for me. And so with that, so that everybody feels like this is on the up and up... and the most valid process, I think it needs to go back out to the market."
Becker also thought a different approach might trigger more bidders in a second round.
"And to your [Bankson's] point, if there's only one bid back, what does that say about the market at large right now? They're saying, 'hey, we don't have enough interest or demand to do that type of project. So maybe that's for us to say, let's pause on it.' But I don't buy into that. Unless someone can prove and show me who they talk to, outside of the cone of silence to say, I approached this developer, I approached this person to really sell them the value of what we're trying to do here... maybe we have a different story."
With the idea of returning the RFP to the market, Commissioner Alexander Smith had a request.
"The RFP also didn't include the fact that, since this is a city partnership, we would like to have minority participation as a part of this project," he said. "I remember us voting some time ago in order for us to receive certain grants that we had to have that... so is that a part of this RFP?"
"I don't recall that being part of the RFP itself," said Hitt.
"So is that something that we can negotiate as a part of the contract?" Smith asked.
"I can put that in there. Sure," said Hitt.
"So does that mean we go back to the drawing board and put it back out in that way? Bankson asked. "Is that what you're saying, commissioners?
"Yes," said Smith. That's why I second Commissioner Becker's motion."
"Okay, we got a motion to reject the bid by Commissioner Becker," said Nelson. A second by Commissioner Smith. All those in favor, say aye. All opposed? Motion carries unanimously. Thank you."
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