Log in

How the Station Street Project became a battleground issue in the 2022 election


There are a lot of elements involved in running a successful political campaign. Effective candidates in municipal elections knock on thousands of doors, raise money, put signs in strategic thoroughfares and in neighborhood lawns, prepare for debates, send mailers to residents, and manage social media.

Those are the fundamentals.

But perhaps the most important aspect in winning an election is driving the message to the issues that your campaign wants to talk about.

In the 2018 election, then-candidate Bryan Nelson was able to keep the conversation on budget management, millage rates, general fund reserves, red-light cameras, and out-of-town fundraising.

Those issues resonated with Apopka voters and Nelson won with 63% of the vote.

In the 2021-22 election cycle, there has been no shortage of issues taking center stage. Most notably economic development, dollar stores, South Apopka annexation, staffing sizes of the Apopka Fire Department's apparatus, and the Rock Springs Ridge HOA attempting to buy its golf course lands.

But in the last few weeks, another topic has become a primary subject heading into election day. It's an issue that made its way into the political ecosystem in an organic manner without either candidate holding a distinct advantage because of it. That subject? The Station Street Project, and the request for proposal (RFP) published by the City.

In a nutshell, the Station Street Project was an RFP published by the City of Apopka for developers to submit a plan on the Station Street Project, which potentially could be an extension of the City Center and propel Apopka's downtown into a thriving area.

But a story like this cannot be contained in a nutshell. 

What is an RFP?

A request for proposal (RFP) is a document that solicits a proposal, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals. It is submitted early in the procurement cycle, either at the preliminary study or procurement stage.

The Station Street RFP

In 2018, City staff began the process of writing the RFP for the Station Street project, but were unable to complete it due to a lack of staff, and then the emergence of COVID-19. Finally, in August of 2021, the City published the RFP.

In the RFP's overview, it states:

"This RFP-Request for Proposal is an invitation for qualified Developers to create a Downtown Apopka mixed-use project consisting of retail, office, and/or residential development using 3.43 acres of property purchased from the City. The project must adhere to all applicable zoning and development laws, which must be confirmed by the Developer.

The City's intent is to select a Developer that will successfully fulfill proposed development, uses, design, background experience, and other factors for development. The site will be conveyed for purchase &/OR closing costs and attorney fees paid for by the successful bidder... The top three Proposers will be interviewed for final selection following the criteria outlined in this RFP. The highest scored/ranked proposer will be recommended to City Council to negotiate the terms and conditions of an agreement."

According to the overview, it seemed as though the City was anticipating multiple bidders - at least three. But it would only receive one bidder in this process - Standard Investments and Holdings LLC (SIH)

Who is Standard Investments and Holdings LLC?

Tony Benge (Benge Advisers LLC) and 654 Ventures Inc. are listed as principals for SIH. 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 $6.5 million letter of intent to purchase the city-owned Harmon Road properties. He is also a founding Economic Development Investor on the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.

A connection between Benge and Nelson

According to the October fundraising report, Benge made a $1,000 contribution to Apopka Mayor Nelson's reelection campaign, and hosted (along with his wife Robyn Benge) a fundraiser for him in Winter Park, which included award-winning barbecue pitmaster Rodney Scott (of Netflix - Chef's Table fame) catering the event.

Nelson amassed a war chest from out-of-town contributions in the 2022 election, but in 2018, it was a different story.

"My support comes from Apopka, not from Winter Park..."

In the 2018 mayoral election against then-incumbent MayorJoe Kilsheimer, Nelson pounded his opponent with criticisms about out-of-town contributions.

"Look at all the campaign contributions I have received and look at the contributors my opponent has gotten, and see how many came from Apopka," Nelson said in the 2018 debate. "They're not good old boys; they're not young boys, they're just people that live in Apopka, Plymouth, and Zellwood. They've known me for my entire life. They've known me for six months, ten years, whatever. But my support comes from Apopka, not from Winter Park, not from Tampa, and not from Orlando."

Nelson also pointed out that a local developer with a project in Apopka contributed to Kilsheimer's campaign and alluded to that being questionable.

"It's funny that Craig Ustler is the project manager," Nelson said in the same debate. "His dad Tom was a grower here many, many moons ago. We haven't been shut out of the discussions with Craig, but he did support the mayor with some campaign contributions so you should probably take that into account."

In 2017, AdventHealth chose Ustler as its development partner for the former Florida Hospital in Apopka, and contributed to Kilsheimer's campaign. 

Nelson also questioned why outside contributors would even want to get involved with an Apopka candidate.

"Look at his [Kilsheimer's] contributors," he said. "They're developers like MMI who built Marden Ridge Apartments that he gave a sweetheart deal to on the road. He got money from Shoot Straight because they are building a new building. He got money from Tampa from an old client. What do they care about Apopka? Let's look at the contributions, and I'll take my little $50 and $100 contributors from Apopka any day over those $1,000 contributions."

Red Flags Emerge

At its January 19th meeting, the Apopka City Council took up the proposal of SIH on the Station Street Project. Many issues, including the campaign contributions, were listed as concerns.

Commissioner Kyle Becker, who is running against Nelson for Apopka Mayor, expressed concern with only one bid coming back from the process.

"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 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."

He also referenced the campaign contributions.

"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. There are people  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."

The Council voted 5-0 to reject the bid, with little or no pushback.

The blowback from the vote

At the following City Council meeting (February 2nd), the blowback from the Station Street vote was swift and full-throated.

Cate Manley (Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO) scolded the Council for its rejection of the bid. Manley stressed the point that the first vote was simply to allow the City to negotiate with the winning bidder, and did not guarantee a final outcome.

"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. 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."

Benge's ire

As scathing as Manley's remarks were, they paled in comparison to Benge's tirade.

"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," said Benge. "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."

"Congratulations. You just committed a federal offense."

Benge continued his remarks by invoking civil rights violations, potential lawsuits against the City, and various expletives to describe his ire towards the City Council.

"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 used that as the sole basis to disqualify the RFP and as disgusting as that is... the City now won't get a $10 million investment. 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."

It's an odd stance for the president of a multi-million dollar development company to talk about civil rights violations that he suffered when also proposing to develop a property next to the railroad tracks that separated blacks and whites in Apopka from 1938-68. It's not exactly a Selma, Alabama moment - but Benge was not finished.

"...Contaminated site adjacent to the rail tracks, unbelievable restrictions on what can be done, but we were 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. 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?"

And much like the front end of Benge's comments, it's an odd set of facts that makes a developer both insult a property he bid on, and go after a Council so vehemently if he was only doing it out of a sense of charity for Apopka. 

That may seem like a logical ending to this story. Council votes against a bid. Developer complains that they've made a bad business decision. Move on.

But that is not how issues like this work in a political campaign cycle.

Station Street as a debate question

At the January 31st debate between Becker and Nelson, the question of the Station Street RFP was asked of both candidates. Becker gave a brief history of the project in his response.

"So, the RFP process is a unique one versus other city business sectors," he said. "We've talked about developing the Station Street area, which is adjacent to this building, for many years now. Back in 2018, when my opponent was elected, his staff had committed to get an RFP out to the street in December 2018, which slipped to 2019-Q1. And fast forward to August 2021. We all know that this has to anchor the success of our downtown area down to the city center development. My concern was that, after all this time, we had one RFP response, staff was not able to articulate to me all of the activities that they had done to drum up interest on this prior to the cone of silence. We had one bid come back. And the bid that came in had donors who were maximum contributors to my opponent's campaign. In fact, one had hosted a major fundraiser at a house in Winter Park. And so when you have one RFP, combined with that, combined with the concept that they didn't divulge during our council meeting, even though the cone of silence in our RFP stopped at the beginning of that meeting, they could have voiced what they were trying to do and that concept, but it was never done. And so I voiced my concern, because I want to make sure that the residents of Apopka feel like we have a process that's fair, and on the up-and-up in principle. And so I used my principles to voice a motion to reject the bid. It was unanimously voted on to reject, including my opponent. There was no advocacy for that RFP by my opponent. And it's not to say that that's done... that RFP can go back out to the street; I would hope that it will. And I hope that we advocate for the best possible outcome, and that would be a multiple bid situation."

Nelson pushed back on Becker's assertion. He even expressed concern that Apopka would look bad in a business publication in Central Florida.

"Well, let's say this... that the commissioners... we always give them the opportunity to meet with staff about what's coming up at the next Council meeting, and for last year, the Commissioner doesn't think that's worthy of sitting in with the staff. So they meet with staff about the RFP. And it wasn't about the RFP folks, this was the opportunity for them to go to negotiate with Tony Benge... yes, he donated to my campaign. But that was for him to be able to negotiate with our team. That's all that was, if we didn't like  the opportunity that was given to us by Tony Benge, then we could have rejected it. So to say that you rejected the opportunity to negotiate a single bid because... we have a brownfield designation on that property, which means that the value of money becomes much more important because you can't borrow against brownfield properties. So we've lost that opportunity, and we're going to look like fools when it comes to the Orlando Business Journal because we didn't take at least the opportunity to come back with a proposal that we could accept or reject."

"You rejected it too," said Becker, in reference to Nelson's vote against the RFP.

So what is the right answer for Station Street? Should the City Council have accepted Benge's bid and negotiate? Isn't one bid better than none? Should the City staff have been more aggressive in its marketing of the RFP? Why was there only one bidder? Is it appropriate for a developer to donate to a candidate and throw a fundraiser for him when they have business before the Council? 

And in the end, which candidate does this favor? Does it make Becker look anti-business for spearheading the no-vote? Does it make Nelson look hypocritical to criticize out-of-town contributions in 2018, but embrace them in 2022? Was there too much of a conflict of interest in this RFP?

These are the questions that the Apopka voters will clarify on March 8th. That's what elections do.

Apopka City Council, Station Street Project, Request for Proposal, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Apopka City Commissioner Kyle Becker


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here