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Please don’t let the council embarrass Vero again

My unsolicited, no-nonsense advice to the high-level Vero Beach city officials currently preparing a new, more demanding request for proposals for the long-awaited development of the Three Corners property?

Leave no opportunity for the City Council – especially the three overmatched members who embarrassed us last time – to again miss what should have been a slam-dunk approval of a spectacular plan that would surely take our community far beyond its collective imagination.

Creating a hub for dining, retail, social and recreation on the mainland shore is a huge undertaking for a city of Vero Beach’s size, and we cannot afford to let the amateurish antics of elected officials undermine the recommendations of knowledgeable professionals, as they did last month.

Therefore, you cannot deliver to councilors a process that gives them room to manipulate the all-important developer selection phase by deliberately and dishonestly ranking superior proposals lower, just to ensure that the plan they favor wins.

You must stick to your plan to eliminate a repeat of any such woes by tweaking the process—so that a yet-to-be-formed selection committee would interview only the development groups that submitted the top three proposals and then recommend to the council only its top two choices .

To avoid the controversy that would surely accompany another split decision, you should also suggest that council members require a supermajority when voting to select a Three Corners developer.

You may have to recommend even more extreme measures to prevent this potentially magnificent project from being derailed again by a councilor’s politically motivated refusal for concocted reasons, or indirect but curious business connections to one of the development groups, or false and unverifiable claims about public sentiment.

The stakes are SO high.

You cannot allow this process – unlike the previous one, which created animosity that drove a wedge in our already divided community – to become a popularity contest determined by who shows up at City Hall, or who emails council members or participate in easily manipulated online surveys.

These numbers are not in any meaningful way representative of what the larger society wants.

While we’re on the subject: You should also seriously consider inserting a clause into this second-chance RFP that prohibits development groups from using social media platforms, professional marketing efforts, and advertised meetings at local breweries to promote their proposals and spin the public eye public opinion in their favor.

This is not a political campaign.

Additionally, the submitted proposals, which will once again be made available for review on the city’s website, should speak for themselves. You can be sure they will also get a lot of local news media coverage.

In the meantime, make sure you educate council members on the difference between using tax increment financing (TIF) to fund development projects and appropriating taxpayer money from the city budget.

There was clearly a glaring lack of understanding the first time around, when it became apparent that at least one councilor didn’t quite grasp the concept of TIF – or rather didn’t want to.

In any case, we cannot allow councilors to again make unfair decisions on a project of this size, simply because they are confused about funding sources.
Nor can we give the development groups the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the cost calculations in their proposals.

To that end, it was encouraging to hear City Manager Monte Falls say last week that the updated selection process for developers will include a “buildability evaluation,” which will be conducted by an outside consultant hired to ensure that the estimates included in the proposals are accurate . .

That assessment, he said, will be done in addition to a separate review of the development groups’ financial capacity — specifically their ability to finance their proposals — by PFM Financial Advisors, the same consultant the city used in the process it abandoned last month.

“We want to make sure the numbers the developers are using are accurate and make sense, so we’re comparing apples to apples,” Falls explained, adding, “That didn’t happen last time.”

Last time, Indiana-based Clearpath Services provided more comprehensive and realistic cost estimates in its proposal, which, at $500 million, offered more than double the financial investment included in the plans submitted by the other three development groups.

The ambition and projected costs of Clearpath’s proposal concerned three council members — Tracey Zudans, Taylor Dingle and Vice Mayor Linda Moore — who favored the allegedly safer but still evolving $189 million plan submitted by Pompano Beach-based SuDa, CREC Capital, Madison Marquette Partnership.

It didn’t matter that the Clearpath plan was strongly recommended by the select committee, or that council members’ concerns were unfounded, given that any questions about the group’s ability to finance its proposal would have been answered during negotiations with the city.

However, Councilor John Carroll described Clearpath’s proposal as “almost perfect”, based on his judgment of 40 years of engineering experience, which he also used to successfully push for the disqualification of the “all smoke and mirrors” SuDa plan last month.

In the weeks since the council’s June 7 vote on a developer selection process vote, Carroll has made several recommendations to city staff regarding the revamped RFP, insisting on the independent assessments of buildability.

“We can’t just take people’s word for their estimates,” he said.

Mayor John Cotugno agreed, saying, “We’ve learned from our past experience and we’re making the process better. We’re bringing more expertise and taking a more fact-based approach. At the same time, we’re removing as much of the subjectivity as we can.”

That’s why, Falls said, the new RFP will include elements that all proposals must address in detail.

These elements include: replacement of bulkheads along the property’s shoreline; construction of parking facilities for both customers and employees; identify specific funding sources and whether their plan includes grants, TIF and/or temporary rent forgiveness; and provide preliminary environmental reports addressing permit requirements.

“We want this RFP to cover all the things we know need to be done,” Falls said, “that weren’t specifically outlined in the first RFP.”

The new RFP is expected to be completed next week and presented to the council at its July 23 meeting. If approved, Falls said the city will begin advertising early next month. Developers will have 120 days to submit their proposals, with the deadline expected to be in early December.

In addition to contacting the nearly 60 potential developers on the list compiled by Colliers International — the consultant used to market the initial solicitation last fall — the city will post its RFP on industry websites.

“Council members wanted to provide an opportunity for other developers to respond, in addition to the four who submitted proposals last time,” Falls said. “We currently do not know if any or all of the previous four will re-file.

“We hope they will, and we expect at least some of them will, but no one has told us if they will or not,” he added. “They’re probably waiting to see what’s in the new RFP.”

In fact, City Attorney John Turner received an email from an attorney representing the Suda Group, who apparently is interested in responding to the new RFP — but with an impossible-to-ignore condition.

In his June 26 email, attorney John Shubin not only demanded “written confirmation” that the city will not ban any member of the former SuDa team from participating in the upcoming RFP process, but he also wanted a guarantee because the group’s previous disqualification “will not be taken into account” in the evaluation of its new proposal.

Councilors voted at a June 7 special invitation meeting to disqualify the SuDa group because one of its representatives violated the terms of the RFP by attempting to contact them directly just hours before their May 28 decision.

Shubin’s first claim is irrelevant, as the council told SuDa representatives at the special call-in meeting that the disqualification would not prevent them from responding to a future RFP.

There’s no way, but the city can provide assurances about the council’s mindset, especially with three of the five seats on the November ballot — before the RFP deadline.

For Shubin to even make such a demand reeked of arrogance, but it was consistent with the tone of his email, which also referred to the “numerous legal challenges currently available” to SuDa.

In fact, Shubin ended his correspondence with a threat, warning that if the city did not comply with SuDa’s demands, the group’s “focus and resources will go into asserting their rights and pursuing appropriate remedies, instead of planning and working toward the best possible plan for The Three Corners Project.”

Threatening litigation is probably not the best way for a developer – one who has already gone outside the rules once – to endear himself to members of a select committee, city council or community.

As for the Clearpath group, frontman Randy Lloyd said last week that he and his partners have not ruled out responding to the city’s new RFP and were in a “wait-and-see mode,” though he acknowledged the council’s conduct during it previous process “left a bad taste” in his mouth.

It should have: Council members gave no legitimate reason for abandoning that process, which, according to the RFP, should have moved forward with Clearpath — the runner-up in their developer rankings — replacing the disqualified SuDa group in city negotiations.

“We thought if we did everything right and played by the rules, the process would win,” he said. “I guess the saying is true: No good deed goes unpunished.”

However, Lloyd said he would not go to court to force the city to comply with its now-discarded bid proposal, because he saw no point in getting caught up in a long legal battle with a community he loves.

“I still like the project,” he added, “I still see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

That’s what Clearpath offered us – a mainland waterfront destination that would create excitement for generations to come – only to have a short-sighted majority on council turn a dream into a debacle.

The new RFP cannot let that happen again.

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