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Columns > Happytown



“And – welcome to you, the cast of the next great blockbuster … the story of downtown Orlando!” were but some of the words issued forth by Mayor Buddy Dyer from atop the precipice of illusion that was this year’s State of Downtown address. The annual public progress report – cough fundraiser for the Downtown Orlando Partnership cough – has come to be known for its thematic sleights of hand (who can forget the whole down-home front porch/rocking chair meme employed in 2007?), and this year’s lunchtime affair Oct. 15 at the Plaza Cinema Café proved just how far a theme can go. (Too far.)

Central to the presentation was its location, or rather locations, within the $6 million theater that Cameron Kuhn couldn’t quite get built. See, in the city’s flowchart of all things progress, the very fact that there’s a movie house interrupting the southward march of foot traffic on Orange Avenue is cause for celebration; i.e. “We have a thee-AYTER, just like a real city!”

Dyer, whose smoothed-over mug was projected into the theater’s rooms for the viewing enjoyment of suits eating out of sandwich boxes (“It’s a recession,” demurred city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh), took the opportunity to really ham it up this year. In one of the pre-speech advertisements, hizzoner donned a powdered judicial wig to declare in favor of the newly revamped Orlando Film Festival. For his speech, the mayor was placed in a director’s chair in the middle of a bunch of film canisters with a megaphone at the ready. Everything was a movie, really, and if we hadn’t already seen it all before we might not have believed it.

“Here in Orlando, we are writing our own story, our own movie script, if you will, every day,” Dyer directed.

Some close-ups we weren’t ready for: The city will host an ice skating rink at Lake Eola this holiday season (!), the fountain at said lake will be repaired to the tune of $2.3 million with some help from The Phantom of the Opera, Orlando Health is about to embark on $450 million in “infrastructure investment,” and the city will pretend to love homeless people with a $1.6 million men’s service center while simultaneously fighting the feeding of homeless people in court. It’s a wonderful life!

The rest of the pep talk was all venues and condos and creative villages and up, up, up! Church Street will get a mixed-use facelift! Sports will save everything like Magic! Parramore will be pretty! Also, according to a trade publication we’ve never heard of, houses will start to sell themselves.

“A recent issue of Retail Traffic magazine says Orlando has everything in its favor to more quickly overcome the real estate crisis than other American cities,” reported the mayor. (Another recent Retail Traffic headline: “Swelling Enrollment Turns Schools into Welcome Retail Tenants in the Southeast.” Awesome.)

For the script’s stirring dénouement, the mayor waxed freshman film-school philosophical to seal the deal.

“The great movies, the epics, kind of follow a certain formula,” he opined. “In the first act, everyone is happy and successful. The future is boundless. In the second act, everything goes wrong. Confidence is shaken. And the characters are put to the test. Sound familiar?”

Yeah, like Twister.

“Well, downtown Orlando has been put to the test. You know what? In those great movies there’s always a comeback! I’ve got a feeling that the story of downtown Orlando has a great ending, too. I can’t wait to see it!”

It’ll end in tears.

Speaking of happy endings – no, not that kind – the folks behind the Dr. P. Phillips Orlando Performing Arts Center were at the ready last Thursday with their latest installment of “Hey, look, it’s still happening!” To go along with the mayor’s announcement that Phase One of the performing arts center’s construction will break ground in spring 2010 even though the rest of the world is ending, DPAC chairman Jim Pugh and president Kathy Ramsberger were on hand with illustrated renderings of the Pin-Drop Palace’s interior.

“The interiors bring the magnificence and impact of the performing arts center to life,” Pugh says in a press release. “Not only is this building an architectural and technological masterpiece; it is now a warm and inviting gathering place for this community.”

So, it’s hot and it’s cold; it’s yes, then it’s no.

The announcement heralded a “banner day,” according to DPAC, as this would mean a tangible commitment to spend the $250 million currently available – the group has raised $86 million so far in donations – on constructing the 2,700-seat Disney-named theater and the 300-seat community theater.

Go ahead. Hold your breath.

Maybe it’s time to take developer-turned-political-hopeful Matthew Falconer seriously. Sure, we already over-steeped our teabags on his clumsy bumper-car race through policy rhetoric following his campaign announcement for Orange County mayor over the summer (“How to run a campaign and alienate people,” July 23), but the man – who bears no slight resemblance to Potsie from Happy Days – remains an enigma. That whole teenage-militia thing he was planning may not have worked out – cue the Nazi references here – but the fiscally conservative libertarian has come out swinging with supposed polling victories and unlikely support (er, a photo op) from Republican Party reptile Newt Gingrich. Newt!

“It is big news when perhaps the most respected Republican in America comes to Florida and even bigger news when he offers support and encouragement for reforms being undertaken in local government,” Falconer froths in an e-mail.

Old Gingy reportedly took a shine to Falconer’s “Contract with Orange County” – lower taxes and other things – and signed a framed copy of the document last week, even posing for a picture to prove it! You’ll recall that Gingrich was partially responsible for the “Contract with America” that secured a Republican congressional majority in 1994 (he also wrote a book, A Contract With the Earth, that was less successful), so he’s familiar with misleading flourishes. Now he sells “Newt Products” on and occasionally burps on Fox News.

Anyway, the attention appears to be moving Falconer forward. He’s just sent out a press release declaring himself tied for first in early polling with Dame Linda Stewart. This could actually get interesting.

It’s been a coon’s age since we checked in with the National Priorities Project, the folks who keep a running tab on the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so you don’t have to. Keep these figures in mind the next time a birther starts screaming at you about teabags and socialism:

As of Oct. 19, the total cost of both wars since 2001 is right at $922 billion and change. At this rate, we’ll break the $1 trillion mark by March. The wars have cost Floridians a mere $50.5 billion, though, so there’s that.

Taxpayers in Orange County will pay $3.4 billion of the tab, which is enough cabbage to buy some pretty cool stuff, like 58,323 elementary school teachers for one year, health insurance for 1.2 million people for one year, 25,000 or so units of affordable housing or a lot of really, really good beer. At least it’s been money well spent, since both Iraq and Afghanistan are now peaceful, stable democracies. Thanks again, W.
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