Commercial real estate industry bigwigs were among those in attendance at a CREW Orlando event Wednesday, which placed Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings on a panel to discuss their visions of growth.
Moderated by Sarah Kelly, president of SEK Advisors and a past president of CREW Orlando, the event was the first of which to put the mayors on a platform together since stepping into their current positions.
At the Citrus Club on the 18th floor of the Citrus Center in downtown Orlando, the mayors flew through a wide range of topics that covered improving the city and county's reputedly slow-paced permitting systems, the prospect of more affordable housing developments and a need to expand transportation services — potentially by increasing the sales tax.
"We've invested $10 billion in transportation models," Dyer said, while mentioning phase two of the Sunrail project, the expansion at Orlando International Airport and the I-4 Ultimate roadway project.
"That's a good investment for now, but we certainly need additional support," Dyer said. To put it in perspective he added, "we have the population of the city of Atlanta visiting us every day."
Taking into account prospective growth, Mayor Demings expressed the need for some preparedness. One idea he floated at the event was raising the sales tax to support infrastructure and transportation initiatives.
"When you're growing like that, you're going to have some traffic congestion," he said. "We need to not just look at what we can accomplish in the next months but make decisions that have a positive impact on the generations that are not yet born."
The panelists also discussed bringing affordable housing, or simply less expensive housing like micro units, into the mix of new developments planned for Central Florida. Doing that, Demings said, requires incentivizing developers.
Earlier this week, Demings launched a 38-member committee in Orange County called the Housing for All task force, which will dedicate six months into finding affordable housing solutions.
At the panel, Demings added there is a push by Orange County to replenish the state's William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing fund, which collects money from a tax on real estate transactions to subsidize the construction of affordable apartments and houses.
Unfortunately, the state has diverted about $2 billion of the fund into other needs, Demings said. "That's $2 billion that could have been invested in affordable housing."
Later on, the panel shifted focus to another wary topic — the city and county permitting process. "We know permitting is busy, because we're busy," Kelly said. "How can we work together to alleviate the finger pointing?"
Professionals in the industry complain of a painstakingly slow permitting and approval process, but Brooke Bonnett, Orlando's director of economic development, said it's due to an increased amount of development.
"Over the past 10 years we've doubled permitting activity," Bonnett said. "It's good news and not so good news because we have to figure out how to process all that."
She assured the room steps are being taken. The city launched an online system called Permit Express this year, which streamlines the process and cuts wait time, she said. In some instances, she adds, permits were issued in a day.
She also recommended setting up group sit-down meetings with city planners to go over proposed developments. She said 70 percent of those permit applications are approved on their first submittal.
And what's a panel in Central Florida without some Disney news?
Mayor Dyer announced at the luncheon that Valencia College's downtown School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality at Creative Village will be sponsored by Walt Disney.
The 68-acre master-planned community will be anchored by the new downtown campus for University of Central Florida and Valencia College, and is expected to open in August.
"This is one of the years we live for," Dyer said.