“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
– Emmet “Doc” Brown
Oh, but they do need roads. In fact, the roads Universal Orlando needs are worth $125 million. That’s got to be at least 5x the cost of a DeLorean time machine!
After what seemed to be a marathon week of Universal going back and forth with Orange County, some would even say to the point of threatening the city of Orlando, the decision to give Universal what they want had been voted on and passed by a very thin margin.
Yesterday, the Orange County Commission approved the incentives with a 4-3 vote for a $305 million road extension. A road extension that seems to be the one of the priciest projects the state of Florida has ever seen. Universal needs to expand the roadway to their new theme park, Epic Universe- which is slated to be built off of Universal Boulevard.
Normally, $305 million dollars would buy more than 25 miles of road. Let’s not even begin to think what else that public money could fund. Heaven forbid I even suggest a quarter of that going back into the public school system. Needless to say, Universal is seeking to build a specific type of road, to fit the demands for Epic Universe. Because of the unique project, just 1.7 miles of the road is being reconfigured. If you’re doing the math in your head, that’s a whopping $170 million per mile.
According to Orange County Mayor, Jerry Demings, the county would eventually need the road, thus having to eventually pay for it themselves. Within seconds of the hearing starting, lines were drawn and it was crystal clear which side the mayor was standing on. He had built his entire argument around the fact that Universal is actually doing the county a favor. Mayor Demings is quoted as saying;
“The county would have paid for the road using taxpayer dollars. In this case, we negotiated with Universal because of the increased need to address transportation. This project is going to exacerbate an already failed road system and therefore, we want Universal to pay for a portion of this road the county would have needed either way.”
Normally, a new project like this wouldn’t garner as much attention or spark as heated a debate as this one. But the way Universal has gone about it, has left several county residents and officials with some serious questions. County residents have even posed the question, how does Orange County have all the public money in the world to invest into a theme park, but not for the county’s failing public transportation system?
Last week, the Orlando Sentinel exposed an email that was written by Universal lobbyist- John McReynolds sent an email to several top county officials when word had gotten to him that there was a chance Universal would be denied the public funds. Below is an exert from the email, where many are quick to accuse Universal of using a threatening tone to get their way;
“If I show this to my Chairman, we will be annexing tomorrow.”
– Universal lobbyist, John McReynolds.
While the Orlando Sentinel was uncovering the email in question, among hundreds of others- they also found emails from the county to Universal. Among these were two circumstances where the county asked Universal to sponsor a charity event involving Mayor Demings. In both cases, Universal had written two checks. One for $2,500 and the other for $3,000. Could this be a case of “one hand washes the other, and the both wash the face?”
While we’re discussing the charitable efforts of theme parks and the communities they call home, it should also be noted that Universal had Second Harvest Food Bank attend the hearing on Tuesday. It was during this hearing, in front of a room full of people (most of whom didn’t want this vote to pass), that Second Harvest gave praise to Universal and talked about all the great things they had done to support the region’s largest food bank. I know what you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with roads?” Absolutely nothing. However, what Second Harvest did was soften the image of a theme park that was coming across as giving the city of Orlando and ultimatum.
Another topic discussed at the hearing was the topic of jobs and pay for the people fulfilling the jobs Universal says it will inevitably create as a result of its new park and its $125 million dollar stretch of road. The theme park giant has talked of creating 14,000 new jobs and starting their employees at $15/hour, but have yet to confirm how many of those jobs will be full time and with benefits.
When it comes down to it, I truly believe that the county would have eventually began construction on the road regardless. It’s been well documented that county leaders have always talked about this particular stretch of road. But the case here is, what seems to have gotten the ball rolling was the fact that Universal decided to open a new theme park (still no date has been given for an opening), and threatened to be annexed into the city- leaving the county with no choice but to vote to fund the road that the fate of Epic Universe seems to be riding on.
Did Universal actually “threaten” certain actions if they didn’t get their way? Is there a way they could redo the stretch of road in question, but perhaps in a more economically friendly way? At the end of the day, questions like these and the answers to them, don’t matter. Universal got the money they so desperately needed to fund the road which will be the gateway to Epic Universe. One thing I know for sure, all of this will soon be forgotten and forgiven at slightest detail or piece of information we can get on their new park. Because, let’s be real, we’re all kids at heart. And it’s the kid inside all of us that’s been longing for a ride based on our favorite Italian Video Game character.
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