On Tuesday Morning, three women and four men will be asked to consider a request for $20M in tourism tax funds to support Orlando City Soccer Club's proposed stadium project. Those seven officials make-up the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for Orange County and their decision will have as much to do with Central Florida's perceived identity as it will with constructing a modern facility.
The politicians of Central Florida have been living with a double edged sword for the last fifty years; the billions of dollars in tourism income versus the perception that Orange County is only about theme parks. If you visit from the northeast or midwest, you may think that the County can be traversed simply by jumping on a monorail at Disney. If you're adventurous you may take a rental car or bus to the many outlets along International Drive. However, the over two million people who call Central Florida home don't live in the Magic Kingdom or the Islands of Adventure.
To help establish Orlando and Orange County as more than just a tourist destination, the decision was made to try and lure a professional sports franchise to the area in the 1980's.
The City and County reached a mutual agreement to spend $110M in public funds in 1989 ($204M in 2013 dollars) to construct a facility that ultimately became home to the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Although the team name alluded to Central Florida's theme park industry, the Magic were a franchise for the people who called Orlando and Orange County home. When the Magic requested a state-of-the-art facility be built to help keep the team in Orlando, the City and County combined to fund roughly $380M of the $480M price tag for the new Amway Center which opened in 2011.
After spending over half a billion dollars in stadium projects for the Orlando Magic over the last 25 years, Central Florida still has not capitalized on the marketing opportunity a professional sports team and modern facility offer. You see, arenas suffer from an inherent design flaw; they are closed, cold boxes. How can you advertise your modern city and beautiful weather if your patrons and television audience cannot even see outside your facility?
Orlando City is offering the politicians of Central Florida a chance to market their greatest features to a national audience through a full-time professional sports franchise. The great soccer grounds of England are carved out of neighborhoods not much different than Parramore (i.e. Anfield in Liverpool) where the spectators can look out and the community can look in at the facility. While the Citrus Bowl towers over West Parramore, a soccer stadium is embedded into the neighborhood, as if it was always meant to be there. In lieu of pre-recorded shots of Lake Eola at commercial breaks for an NBA game, imagine the opportunity to broadcast the glorious skyline of Orlando for a full 90 minutes each match.
As Central Florida tries to diversify beyond theme parks, what better way to frame the City that we love to potential suitors than between the bright lights and thousands of supporters housed in a new stadium for a modern, professional sport.
The decision that will rest in the hands of the seven BCC members is not as much about a $20M investment in a stadium as it is a $20M investment in the identity of Central Florida. We stand behind the officials at Orlando City and the legions of supporters who have shown their unwavering support for the club.