Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Another economic development scam falls apart

When times are tough and you have millions in grant money sitting around for economic development, it’s easy to fall for the lure of the economic development con man.

He rolls into town and promises everything to everybody.

Want jobs? You’ll have them.

Need a tenant? I’ll sign a long-term lease.

Got cash to give to me? I’ll take a check.

I don’t seem to have enough cash to get started? Fear not, I have investors in Minnesota, oh, I mean, investors in Singapore, or maybe it’s Albania?, whose identity I can’t disclose who’ll lend me $20 million.

You insist that I meet your requirements before you disburse the money? Oh, if you want to be “that way” about it, I’ll still do the deal.

I think the word is getting out about the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, and it’s that they’re the biggest bunch of suckers since that lollipop truck overturned on I-75.

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the EDC, gushed like mad over the wonders that Major League Football would bring to the area. As I mentioned before, and before, and before, this bankrupt pseudo-football league is run by people who are adept at making economic development jumps to different parts of the country, making wild and vague promises, and then walking away, leaving vendors and lenders in a pinch and seeking legal relief.

It was hardly a surprise when the league, after holding tryouts, canceled its inaugural season and then announced that it was all part of the big strategy, and then this past week it was revealed that the league has been living “on the arm” at Lakewood Ranch, and the landlord decided to make a move and file eviction papers.

(You can follow the story at the newspaper where I work, the Bradenton Herald.)

The Bradenton EDC managed to avoid being taken in the Sanborn Studios scam, but remember that they fell for the Gulf Coast Swords hockey team deal, the rowing competition and now Major League Football.

What’s next? Cat racing?


June 25, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Major League Football’s field of dreams is just crazy

I have always heard that when you go to the movies, you should suspend disbelief. Sometimes you just need to get away from it all, and I have found that movies like “Interstellar” were great escapes. Maybe the physics wasn’t exactly right, but hey, it was a story. I haven’t seen “Jurassic World” yet, but plan on doing so. I don’t expect exactitude, just a rollicking good time.

But when local governments are spending taxpayer dollars on local businesses, you have to have both feet planted firmly on the ground, and evaluate whether the things that are being promised in exchange for that dough are real or just jawbone.

I see darkened crotches in the pants of a lot of our local economic development officials over this “thing” called “Major League Football.”

I’ve commented on it before, and noted that Manatee County’s commissioners have pledged $147,000 to the organization to – as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted on June 16 – “…relocate to Southwest Florida and create 49 jobs at its corporate headquarters within the next five years.”

Commenters at the bottom of the story – unusually – had nothing to say about Benghazi or Obamacare, but one astute observer noted as I did that this was “From the city that brought you one wall of a hockey arena and a suspect movie production studio. Strike 3.”

Not wanting to be left out, the H-T said, “Bradenton and Sarasota sports commissions have since committed a combined $35,000 in tourist tax dollars to offset Major League Football’s rent in its inaugural season — the company will chip in $10,000 for the use of Premier Sports Campus next spring from Feb. 15 to March 20.”

The reason for this is that, and I know this sounds hard to believe, next year at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, there will be a spring training camp for 1,000 players and coaches.

Running on empty
If Major League Football was a running back prospect, he’d be cut after the 50-yard dash. As of Jan. 31, again according to the H-T, the company “has $5,000 in cash, a working deficit of $1 million and thousands in unpaid income taxes to the state of Delaware.”

Wow. I’m really worried that I might have been wrong about this outfit.

Seriously, folks, based on past stories, does anyone really believe that there is a horde of investors out there waiting to lose money on this?

League executive vice president Frank Murtha claims that this is all part of some grand plan. “We’re not just winging it,” he told the Herald-Tribune.

Well, sheeze, with $5,000 in cash, you can buy a lot of Playstations and copies of “Madden 15,” and there’s your league.

The history of Major League Football makes you wonder, as the H-T drops names that have some associations with the NFL, as if that makes them credible:

“Last December, MLF emerged as a publicly traded company with a plan to launch a spring football league in cities without National Football League or Major League Baseball teams. The company has since announced “tentative” teams in Orlando; Little Rock, Arkansas; Norfolk, Virginia; Birmingham, Alabama; Oklahoma City and Eugene, Oregon. The company has several former NFL players behind it, including Ivory Sully, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, and Wesley Chandler, the former Gator who played for the New Orleans Saints, the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers. CEO Jerry Vainisi is the former vice president of the Chicago Bears and led football operations for the World League of American Football, later known as NFL Europe. That league disbanded in 2007.”

The deluded Bradenton EDC

The head of the Bradenton Economic Development Corporation, Sharon Hillstrom, is still as deluded as ever, insisting that any corporate headquarters is good. So I guess if the company is busted and incapable of doing anything, that’s as good as there not being a company there.

“Any time you can land a corporate headquarters, that’s great,” Hillstrom, the Bradenton EDC president, said. “Typically that’s going to be positions that have a higher wage. And a company gives us that much more credibility as a viable location for sports performance events.”

Unless, of course, the company never pays promised wages. I doubt that $5,000 will last long.

But not to worry.

“At a press conference held earlier this month, a finance officer with MLF told the Herald-Tribune that it would take roughly $100 million to cover the costs of a league that aims to fill a gap in professional football by playing in the spring and summer seasons. Reached Monday, Murtha discredited that number, but declined to provide a more realistic figure. Before MLF announced that it would move to Lakewood Ranch, the company filed paperwork that states that it has raised $470,000 out of a planned $3 million.”

Oh, OK.

“When it came to picking a headquarters, MLF reportedly looked at setting up shop in Daytona, on Florida’s east coast, and in San Antonio, Texas, and Casa Grande, Arizona. The Premier Sports Campus, as well as the incentive package from Manatee County, helped officials decide on Lakewood Ranch, Murtha said.”

So in other words, the other places weren’t big enough suckers for their pitch. They found just what they were looking for here. Lovely.

And, of course, just as the Florida Marine Raiders insisted they would do well in Lakeland, Murtha claims Major League Football will do well here.

“Murtha said that open tryouts for Major League Football will be held this summer, when the company expects to announce the remaining cities in the league. What fuels his confidence is the idea that Major League Football can help the NFL by becoming a development league, providing options for talented players who are cut from the NFL or looking to make it there. He said Monday that he expected recruiting players to be ‘easy,’ since there is a ‘surplus of good players and the lack of (alternative) places to play.’ [Especially since the X-League seems to be falling apart.] He maintains that his company will not be like other sports leagues — such as the United Football League, which was unable to attract enough fans to stay in business after four fall seasons.
As for continuing to secure funds for coaches and players’ salaries, team expenses and other costs — that may rely on the public’s interest in the new league.
‘We have the ability to raise funds in the public market at the appropriate time,’ Murtha said. ‘The bulk of our expenses don’t begin until next spring.’”
I refuse to suspend disbelief when it comes to this.

June 18, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Manatee County taxpayers to get clotheslined again with new football league

One of the advantages of living in one media market and working in another is that you get to see several different local governments play the economic development game.

The good part about the game is that the taxpayers always lose, and anyone unfortunate enough to be hired by the companies that relocate to the area for the tax breaks ends up back on unemployment soon enough.

For those seeking to play one county against another in Florida, it’s a fun game because the people in one county rarely read the newspapers or websites in another county, and may be oblivious to what’s happening elsewhere in the state.

I live in Ellenton, Fla., a suburban area just off I-75 and U.S. 301 near Bradenton. Bradenton is in Manatee County, which is north of Sarasota County and its county seat, the city of Sarasota. Just north of us is the Tampa-St. Petersburg metroplex.

I work, however, in Polk County, which features the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. It’s about a 40-mile drive north on I-75 and then about 20 miles east on I-4 for me to get the 63.5 miles to my job at the Lakeland Ledger. It’s also a privilege to see two very different areas of Florida, and watch the counties get screwed over by economic development schemes, especially those involving sports.

Sarasota County has the legendary Sanborn Studios mess, which is still plowing through the courts, but Manatee County has shown that it likes being screwed, too.

Recently, Manatee’s Economic Development Corporation offered a financially busted entity called “Major League Football” more than $200,000 to place its headquarters in Lakewood Ranch. The promise is that the league would succeed where the U.S.F.L. and the XFL failed, and make great profits in football outside the regular NFL season.

Of course, many promises fail to get kept, and the fact that the U.S.F.L. and XFL now exist as Wikipedia entries shows that taking on the NFL is not a winning proposition.

According to the Bradenton Herald, on Friday, June 5, a press conference will announce the league’s location decision.

According to the very seriously deluded Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., as quoted in a May 23 piece in the Bradenton Herald:

“While MLFB has not officially announced it will locate its headquarters and training facilities in Lakewood Ranch, the anticipation is building, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

“‘We would obviously be thrilled to have Major League Football here in Manatee County,’ she said. ‘Just goes to give further credibility of the sports performance industry as an important sector in the economy.’

“This speaks volumes in terms of sports performance as a driver for the local economy, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is a big deal,’ she said.

“Manatee County and the region are set apart from other areas with its sports performance industry focus, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘I don’t know other areas that have sport performance as a targeted industry sector,’ she said.”

“When companies locate to the area, there is typically a multiplier effect as employees will buy houses and go to restaurants, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is all good stuff, she said.’ ‘The other thing is the Major League Football will be bringing events here. …I don’t see a downside.’”

Lakeland vs. Lakewood Ranch

There was similar hyperbole up in Lakeland, when a nearly defunct X-League arena football team called the Lakeland Raiders, which had been playing at The Lakeland Center – across the street from The Ledger – managed to persuade Polk County that its economic future was in some form of indoor football.

The Raiders tried all sorts of gizmos and tricks, including turning nonprofit and inventing a military tie-in – very popular in sports today – by renaming the team the Lakeland Marine Raiders. Recently, according to my paper, the Ledger, the team canceled its final game at The Lakeland Center amid an issue about rent payments.

A May 31 story in the Bradenton Herald on Major League Football noted that the league was financially in pretty bad disarray, including an accumulated deficiency of $12.8 million and cases pending over nonpayments to other entities.

The person running the league made much of negotiations underway for team locations and TV deals, but as usual nothing has been finalized yet.

Remember the Lakewood Ranch hockey arena?

Local government officials tend to get wet over the prospect of minor league sports in their communities, and will open the government’s checkbook – or do so through an economic development corporation – to get the league or a franchise of a league to sign up.

I like to tell the story of the great Lakewood Ranch hockey arena, and how the plans for a minor league hockey team in that area fell apart.

The astoundingly rich founder of the AFLAC insurance company pitched the idea of a hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch. Indeed, one of the roads in the development was called “Center Ice Parkway.”

Work began on the arena but stopped when contractors stopped being paid. At the end, there were three walls that had been built, and they were dubbed “Stonehenge.” They stood for years as various maneuvers were made to try to get construction restarted, and finally the three walls were razed, and the road was given a new name. Today, the idea that there would be an ice hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch has been forgotten for the most part.

So I guess that’s why the area is prime territory for a new pro football league: No one remembers what happened last time pro sports was pitched in the area.

Stadium game redux

I have always been critical of governments getting into the sports funding business. While minor league baseball is a little more on the level than these independent football leagues that seem to crop up like wildflowers on the highway, we have to remember that cities in Florida have been screwed in the stadium game. Vero Beach got a royal screwing from the Dodgers before the team packed up for Arizona. Decades of tradition are no protection against a fast departure, and when a municipality buys a stadium from a team and then leases it back to the team, it’s a sure sign that the team is getting ready to leave town.

No one remembers, I’m sure, that there was a minor league basketball league called the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), and there was a franchise in West Palm Beach called the BeachDogs. The latter didn’t last very long.

Sports is simply a bad bet for economic development. I guess that’s the gist of what I’m saying. I doubt if this new football league will ever attain anything beyond being a footnote in a Wikipedia entry. But so long as elected officials keep buying into the schemes, I suppose we taxpayers will have to keep funding them.

June 5, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Florida, economic development schemes leave lives in tatters

It used to be that the Sunshine State was the home of land and real estate schemes designed to separate the gullible from their money.

“Florida swampland” was pitched to northern investors as a can’t-miss proposition, and there have been numerous booms and busts in the state’s real estate markets through the decades, starting in the 1920s and continuing into the 2000s.

At various times, various regions were said to be the new boomtowns, including Immokalee, where it was rumored in the 1920s that Henry Ford was going to build a new city with a production plant. Actually, according to a fascinating book, “Fordlandia,” the city ended up in a remote part of Brazil, but now it is mostly abandoned.

Other areas of Florida where land deals proliferated included the city of North Port, which was laid out in the 1970s and pitched to mostly northeastern folk as being near Port Charlotte and Sarasota, while actually a long distance away. Only recently has North Port come into its own, though its growth was shattered by the Great Recession, leaving the city and its citizens in financial ruin.

Some boomtowns have had staying power. Orlando has ridden the Disney boom up and down, and it shows no signs of going away as the attractions business is popular. The Villages has proven to be a retirement community that probably won’t disappear anytime soon, either.

But it’s in the effort to create good-paying jobs that Florida has really gone through some wrenching boom and bust cycles. Different areas have latched onto different schemes, to the detriment of working people in Florida and the benefit of local elected officials.

I suppose my mind was directed this way because of the news today (Friday, Sept. 7, 2012) that Digital Domain’s facility in Port St. Lucie is closing down and its 300 employees, many hired within the past year and even the past few weeks, are going to lose their jobs.

According to The Palm Beach Post:

“State, Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach officials hoped Digital Domain would spark a new animation industry in Florida. They promised the company $135 million in cash, financing, land and tax credits. West Palm Beach has promised Digital Domain $10 million in cash, downtown land valued at $9.8 million and a bond issue worth $15 million. But the city has paid none of those incentives so far.”

In addition, the state kicked in $20 million upfront, bypassing Enterprise Florida, which found problems with the plans for the company.

Ahhhh, there’s no business like show business like no business I know.

Virtually every city council, city commission or county commission in Florida has imagined that their area is the perfect location for something related to making movies or TV shows, and quite a few have fallen for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and have been conned by a smooth-talking operator into committing public money to some sort of economic development scheme involving movies.

In fact, it amazes me that local elected officials are oblivious of the failures of such schemes elsewhere in the state. That’s not to say that people go from region to region pitching doomed schemes, but that a similar scheme may pop up in one area, and then another, and then another.

Sanborn suckers
As I said, movie and TV schemes are a regular component of the Florida economic development environment. In Sarasota County, the Sanborn Studios experience should be a case study of how an economic development scheme can go awry. In this case, a local person who had hit it very big financially pitched the idea of building a film studio in Lakewood Ranch, which is on the border of Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The Bradenton Herald covered this story spectacularly.

Founder Ken Sanborn claimed that he had a can’t-miss TV series called “Miami 24/7,” about competing TV news helicopters, in which Sarasota would stand in for Miami. The series would not be on U.S. television but would be sold to overseas TV.

Of course, no economic development scheme can happen without government money, so Sanborn managed to gull the Sarasota County Commission into paying $650,000 upfront with the promise of more than 100 jobs paying around $70,000 a year. Needless to say, he would need people trained in the film arts, so Sanborn swung deals to have local educational institutions offer compatible training at a high cost and fueled by student loans.

As the dates for the start of production of “Miami 24/7” slipped, excuses flowed out of Sanborn Studios. An excellent story about the backgrounds of some of the people involved appeared in the Bradenton Herald.

In another story, the paper noted that the company had requested from Sarasota County more money, $500,000, for “post-production” equipment, and that the county was re-evaluating the company.

Soon after, the “Behind the scenes” story in the Bradenton Herald (mentioned above) revealed that not much was going on at Sanborn Studios. On a regular working day, the parking lot was nearly deserted, and the reporter learned that of 21 people employed, several had been laid off. Of course, company executives tried to spin just about everything from the failure to hire enough people to justify the incentives to the failure to start production on “Miami 24/7” to the recent layoffs to changing “Miami 24/7” from an episodic TV series to a movie – to land some state movie making incentives – as a sign of the strength of the company.

After that, Sanborn Studios canceled plans to buy land for a new facility, left its leased space by the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and news of the company stopped.

Maybe it’s a good thing that before Sanborn Studios died early in the process. The county is out the $650,000, and the state lost some money, too, but not as much as was lost with Digital Domain.

The danger of giving money upfront to businesses that make grand promises has been shown countless times. Back in the 1990s, when Palm Beach County was trying to attract businesses, it handed out money on a wing and a prayer to companies, and the results were catastrophic.

After several well-publicized failures, officials became more skeptical and questioning of companies that got incentives. Palm Beach County officials turned down most incentives for Digital Domain, though apparently the city of West Palm Beach took a small hit. But the person in charge of Digital Domain (until Friday, at least) John Textor, simply took his dog-and-pony show to recession-battered Port St. Lucie, and it looks like that city is on the hook for interest on the bonds it floated to build the company’s soon-to-be-closed headquarters.

The lesson here is that business development is not a slam-dunk, and government incentives are not a reliable indicator of the future success of a business.

It’s a pity that even with all the examples we’ve seen, local elected officials in Florida have yet to learn that lesson.

September 8, 2012 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sports will save us – and other myths

In the unincorporated municipality of Lakewood Ranch, which straddles State Road 70 east of Bradenton, Fla., there used to be a street with an absurdly ironic name.

Center Ice Parkway.

But if you drove near Center Ice Parkway, you might be confused. There was no skating rink or sports arena nearby. If you had come by a few months earlier, you would have seen four large concrete “somethings” deteriorating in the sunshine. Eventually, they were knocked down, and now there’s nothing there.

The plan had been to build an ice rink, hence the name Center Ice Parkway. There would have been a minor league hockey team playing there, and the economic boom that was sure to follow – as it has always followed pro sports – would create literally thousands of good-paying with benefits jobs, and the benefits would ripple out into the community, the region, the state, etc. In the Stadium Game, you’ve heard it a million times before, right?

It’s a perennial in the Stadium Game that sports will turn around the morale of a dying town. Factories moving to China or Mexico? Look, the team is winning, so let’s forget about our destroyed lives and feel good about ourselves. (Would you believe, that was the premise of the 1977 movie “Slap Shot”? Seriously, 34 years ago.)

Politicians still fall for the “Slap Shot” maneuver, and a recent article in Salon titled “Beware of vampire squids and their stadium schemes” describes how great promises were made about an arena in Louisville, Ky. By the way, be careful about going to Salon. Its website is full of nasty tricks and pop-up ads.

In the Jan. 22, 2005, issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, columnist Doug Fernandes asked: “Holy cow, where’s the arena?

On Nov. 7, 2009, reporter Halle Stockton wrote the epitaph, “Failed Lakewood Ranch hockey arena demolished”.

In tough times, it’s easy to be conned by sports promoters who invariably pitch “can’t-miss” schemes, virtually all of which involve taking taxpayers’ money and directing it to them. For what? A sports team.

I have always said that a sports team progression is the gift that keeps on taking. First, you need the team. Then you need the arena. Then you need a winning team. Then you need a new arena with skyboxes. And finally, you need new players to keep winning.

But as the song goes (almost): “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the Stadium Game.”

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics, The business of sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wonders of the sky available to all

It was kind of a bittersweet night last Saturday at the “Sidewalk Astronomy” event in Lakewood Ranch.

Many people who had never looked through a telescope before got to see Saturn, and most believed that we weren’t putting them on; that really was the ringed planet (though the rings are getting closer to edge-on.)

The Moon was a joy, as it always is when you can show the shadows of the mountains and craters, and many a kid walked away almost stunned. Many a parent was grateful that we in the Local Group were willing to take out our expensive equipment and share the wonders of the night sky with others.

Of course, while organized events are over for now, I plan on doing a lot of observing in the interim either in front of or behind my house. I recently decided to upgrade my mount to one of those new-fangled “Go-To” types, and there will be a learning curve for me, but I had some experience helping a good friend with his “Go-To” telescope, so I think I’m up to the challenge.

The astronomy club has done so much to keep the flame of science burning bright. Schools are cutting back pretty much anything that isn’t on the FCAT, and it’s good that they know that we amateur astronomers can supplement their efforts. We had some amazing events at schools this past year, and I can remember the kids bursting out of the school auditorium at one event and almost running for our telescopes.

Actually, while the kids were amazed, the parents were also thrilled. “I’ve never looked through a telescope before,” several parents said to me.

“I’ve never seen telescopes like that before,” a few said to me. It looks like we’re packing mortars, some of us, with our short-tube Schmidt-Cassegrains (a few have Newtonians, Dobsonians and refractors, though). But when they see the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Double Cluster or any of those other wondrous objects in the sky, I know we’ve made some headway.

I’ll be sharing views in front of my house this summer, if the bugs cooperate. It’s never too late to learn the wonders of the sky, I always say.

In the meantime, as Jack Horkheimer says, keep looking up!

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment