Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Kyle Becker stood toe-to-toe on the stage Monday night at the Apopka Community Center in what may be their only mayoral debate. Well, in reality, they sat behind tables on the stage and fielded questions from Joel Silver, the out-of-town moderator, who asked the two candidates 13 questions in a little over 67 minutes. Silver is the CEO of Silver Digital Media.
Before a live crowd of almost 300, an overflow audience at the nearby Victory Church, and hundreds more watching on live stream at home and at watch parties across the community, the two candidates for mayor of Apopka illustrated the stark differences in their approach to leading Apopka into the future.
The debate was sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.
And despite a range of topics, it seemed as though all roads led back to one primary issue - economic development in Apopka.
In this three-part series, The Apopka Voice will analyze every aspect of this fascinating debate. By far the most time in this debate was dedicated to the differences between Nelson and Becker on how to springboard Apopka into the economic revolution that other nearby cities have experienced. Neither candidate backed away from their longstanding theories on the subject. In fact, some questions were pivoted back to economic development that started on another topic. It began with the very first question about attracting restaurants to Apopka.
Nelson not only had real-time information about a new restaurant possibility but also made announcements about new places slated for the Apopka City Center.
"Today I have a meeting with Francisco's that is looking to maybe come to the town center," he said. "We'll have the groundbreaking on Thursday for the food hall with a brewery... and we'll have Starbucks coming in with the same town center feel. We feel like we've got restaurants... Rodney Scott's is coming to the Floridian Town Center, which will be a Beard award-winning restaurant. We've got some of the ones we've just brought in the last couple of years. We've got Propagate. We've got Birchwood. We've got Lula Mays, we've got CiCi's... restaurants are coming to Apopka. But what it takes to bring a restaurant is an infrastructure based on jobs. The jobs have to be here. Jobs come first and restaurants follow. We've added over 1,500 jobs here in the last 18 months even with COVID. And so the restaurants now are starting to take a look and say 'Apopka is okay, this is the place I want to be. This is the place I want to come to.' And I just got back from Tallahassee last week... I was there for a committee meeting, trying to get restaurants a lower threshold for a liquor license. It will give them the opportunity to sell liquor, and at a lot lower price because the license is over $100,000. If you're under 150 seats, that'll go a long way toward inviting those restaurants to come into Apopka because obviously alcohol is a big seller, and they need that to make the numbers work for restaurants."
Becker also took the question to economic development but additionally asked the audience to simply use their eyes as it relates to restaurants in Apopka.
"Keep it very easy. You don't have to look forward to understand whenever we talk about restaurants or places that we go to; on a daily basis or a weekend basis we all kind of in our head know exactly what we're talking about," he said. "Some people might be Winter Garden, some people might be Sanford, others may be Mount Dora or other locations. And what do those all have in common? They all have economic development directors or programs that are very intentional about why those things come to their cities. We could sit here and talk about future tense all day long, groundbreakings, and paper announcements, but use your eyes as that test. What have you seen lately? We need to have economic development that goes out and sells the vision of our city - understanding what our city is all about, who lives here, what's upcoming - and have to go out and proactively seek those. I did recently in the past to talk with Darden Restaurants. They came and met... at City Hall. They've got two primary metrics that they judge locations to come to - daily vehicle count and trade population. The city of Apopka, between our two zip codes, we have well over 100,000 people - well within their wheelhouse. We have the daily vehicle counts to support it on 436 and 441. It's a matter of us going out and knocking on their door and staying at their door until they commit to come into places like here. People don't know what they don't know in Apopka. And unless we're actually outbound marketing our city, we're always going to get what we get. And granted, my opponent mentioned some great places - Propagate, Three Odd Guys... yes they're coming. But those locations are dependent upon larger brands coming too because it creates accidental traffic for them. People have to intentionally go to these places and if they don't... what Propagate and Three Odd Guys want is other sit-down dining restaurants that, after they're done with their dinner, they accidentally go and patronize their establishments. Economic development is what needs to be done. Other cities have proven it. We need to do it ourselves."
Since the beginning of the economic development debate, Nelson has pushed the idea of the mayor being the economic development director of Apopka. In his rebuttal, he reloaded that idea.
"Well, let's go back. I know that Commissioner Becker, Commissioner Arrowsmith, and Mayor Joe Kilsheimer brought in Darden Restaurants. So why was it all three of them couldn't bring them to town? So I don't think that's a fair argument. But you know, we got the things are in place now. In the next 18 months, I think you're going to see a lot of restaurants coming in for the entire town center. We got two Beard Award-Winning restaurants coming there. We got Starbucks coming. We've got the Francisco's hopefully. I've been meeting with those folks. When you talk about economic development, who do you want to meet with? An economic development director, or the mayor of Apopka, who is not only the economic growth development director, but he's also one of five votes that get things done? Ask Propagate what I was able to do for them when they asked about the land next to them, which is basically a retention pond. I said, 'hey, I'll give you the ability to use that land... put some outside tables out there, it's perfect, you keep the grass mowed, you get additional seating, we all win'. So those are the kinds of things that as a mayor, in a strong mayor form of government, like the other cities aren't, that's where we make a big difference by being the mayor."
But Becker believes Apopka would be better served by giving a true economic development director the reins and took on Nelson's track record in attracting businesses.
"I'm not trying to represent that I'm the economic development for our city. I think there's a separation of roles. I'm not trying to say that as a strong mayor, I'm out to do economic development with the Dardens of the world. We need to have someone in place to do that specifically. And to your point, you've served in that role, you've worn that hat, even though you're the strong mayor form of government, you were recorded in a local media outlet saying that you've met with all these industrial businesses, multi-billion-dollar companies, and the end of that quote, purely stated, 'it hasn't borne any fruit yet, but it's not for lack of trying.' If it hasn't worked for four years. Why should we continue down that path for another four?"
The very next question by Silver was directly about economic development, and Becker took this time to comprehensively lay out his vision of that department.
"My plan is to actually have a department that's focused on that. There isn't currently one today. We've made minimal investments in terms of economic development in our city. Over the course of the past six years on ... council through two administrations, I would say our largest annual expenditure has been $50,000, which was last year, for a website. So, creating the programs in which to succeed. And the role charter for an economic development program is to go around our city and understand who the owners are, what the land entitlements are, understanding what those owners of those lands are trying to do in that 5-10 year period of time, and then going out to the broader community outside of our borders of Apopka to say, 'hey, owner A over here has got certain entitlements; I know that you're looking for a place to expand or relocate, let's create that partnership'. But having that accountable to our Council, accountable to the city, accountable to the people that are holding us accountable as their representatives. The campaign trail is where you get a lot of feedback. And it's the true litmus test of whether or not you're going on the right path or not. I'm not swayed in my desire to have economic development, a targeted program director, leading that during my time... the three campaigns that I've been on, and it's very well received. This isn't Kyle Becker talking, this is the residents of Apopka and what their demands are. Too often they talk about going outside of the borders of our city. It's time for us to have all these options close to home, and if people want to stay in Apopka, they can. And I think economic development is the roadmap to do that."
Nelson, however, believes that jobs in Apopka will trigger its economic development.
"Let's talk about industrial complexes. You know, we've had a lot going on. We got a lot coming up on industrial buildings and hopefully some light manufacturing. I was able to work with the OAP Orlando Economic Partnership to get the top 10 sites in Central Florida... not just in Orange County in Central Florida... right there at the airport so we got the opportunity to create what could be north of 1,000 jobs right there. Jobs create opportunities for restaurants and shopping. So that's what we need. One-third of all the new property taxes that you and I don't have to pay are being paid by industrial who take the least amount of services... they don't need a lot of police. They don't need the fire. They don't need Parks and Rec. And what's really cool about that is we had Amazon came in, put their project together, up and out in six months. And when they got done with the project, they gave me a $50,000 exhaust fan that can pull the smoke out of big industrial buildings so our firefighters can get in there and make something happen. Industrial will rule the day, it will make the economic development of Apopka grow in those jobs that we're looking for those restaurants, we're looking for those... shopping opportunities will come because we've got high paying jobs here in the city of Apopka."
But Becker thinks that a balance of industrial, entertainment, dining and shopping is a better plan and one that an economic development director can manage more effectively.
"Industrial is great. I was on Council prior to my opponent's administration, where we laid the groundwork for where Goya, Coca Cola, and Amazon are expanding now... that industrial sparked residential... the industrial boom that you're seeing right now. Which is it? Do households create economic development opportunity? Do jobs? Is it a combination thereof? Who's coming in and looking at our books to say how many jobs are in the city of Apopka unless we're outbound telling people about us? So industrial, when's the last time you all went to an industrial location for entertainment, or to get a bite to eat? Industrial? Yes, it's great for our tax base, but we have to be very mixed in our development. And I'll argue that maybe it's not a frequency of calls in terms of fire, but certainly, specialized equipment, specialized training to respond to industrial type of development is certainly key for the city of Apopka... my understanding, when Coca Cola was first created, they've got stuff there that was very sensitive and needed specialized training and response. So, you know, to disregard and say that industrial is going to solve all of our problems from an economic development... I don't think that's the case; we have to have a program and a director in place. Again, all of the cities that we benchmark ourselves against, have this in place. We've got to do what makes sense in what works."
But Nelson believes that a strong mayor form of government is the distinction that puts Apopka in a different position than other cities.
"Name another city that has a strong mayor form of government... and that's my point is that we, as a mayor of a strong government, we can make things happen. We are one of five votes that when something... we can bring something to the table when I shake your hand, you know, you got one vote when it comes to the city council. So those are the kind of things that people want to know. When I've met with some folks from Texas, we didn't end up getting... they said 'Wow, we're meeting with the mayor.' And so they understand and appreciate that you've got somebody there, that's in their corner, that's trying to make things happen, and that those $50,000 to $75,000 jobs start to make restaurants make sense for the citizens here in Apopka. They have to have a lunch crowd. I mean, people talk about your restaurants in a vacuum. If you work in downtown, and you're coming back home at night, you only get one shot at a meal... whereas if you've got industrial jobs here, staying here, then they've got lunch and dinner. You look right out by where Coca-Cola and Goya and Amazon are, we got restaurants being closed... Woodshed and closed. Everybody knows the woodshed has been closed for three, four, or five years. It's now going to be a barbecue restaurant. Is that happenstance? I don't think so."
In Part Two: Discussions about Grants, Rock Springs Ridge, and the City Center bring fireworks to the debate.