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An upcoming vote on funding FSU stadium repairs broadens political divisions among Democrats

FSU's Doak Cambell stadium is enclosed by a massive classroom/office complex with houses several academic programs and the school's admissions and registrar's offices.
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
FSU's Doak Cambell stadium is enclosed by a massive classroom/office complex with houses several academic programs and the school's admissions and registrar's offices.

A rift has emerged in Tallahassee over whether to use local development money to help fund repairs to Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium. The issue is one of appropriateness: Is it right for the joint Blueprint Commission to use local taxpayer money on the repairs? And should such projects fall under the economic development banner?

The tension has split commissioners—city and county—who make up Blueprint’s board. It's also driving new alliances between organizations that normally find themselves on opposite sides.

Unlikely allies join forces to oppose FSU stadium funding

It's not every day when Progressives and Conservatives agree on something, but the rare alliance did show up recently as the free-market think tank Americans for Prosperity and the NAACP joined forces against and ahead of a final Blueprint to give FSU $20 million to fund stadium repairs.

“I understand why some people want to support it, and want to do good by the university, and want to do good for the taxpayers and residents of this great city. Unfortunately, the facts just don’t align with that intention," said AFP Policy Director Phillip Suderman.

Suderman is also an FSU alum, yet he calls the university's funding request a “government handout," that would end up costing Blueprint more than $27 million when interest is added.

“Government exists to make sure everyone is helped, not [just] a select a few," Suderman said during a recent press conference in front of City Hall.

"I believe it when the [FSU] Boosters Club said this is a priority of theirs. And I wish them all the luck in continuing to raise the funds in a private manner from people who will actually be able to benefit from them, instead of coming to the government and asking for a handout.”   

While the state funds most public university buildings it does not typically fund stadiums or dorms, leaving schools to pay for those themselves. FSU got around that loophole nearly 20 years ago by getting the legislature to enclose Doak with a massive classroom/office complex. The Florida State University Boosters organization is fronting the bulk of the money for renovations—some $100 million, and it has asked Blueprint to help provide the rest.

Past funding decisions influence current policy debate

FSU’s ask came after Blueprint approved funding in 2020 to help Florida A&M University repair Bragg Stadium. Blueprint also gave Tallahassee Community College money for its athletic facilities. Defenders of those votes say there’s a difference: FAMU may not have been able to host football games at its stadium given its condition, which would have resulted in an economic loss to the city. TCC’s ask was aimed at helping the school host more events in its facilities, thus bringing in more money.

Speaking at a May Blueprint meeting, City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow said all three projects are different and therefore warranted different considerations.

"We don’t set precedent by building one sidewalk that obligates us to build every sidewalk. We have to take decisions one by one, based on their merits," Matlow said.

Matlow voted in favor of funding to TCC and FAMU but is against funding for FSU.

During the same press conference that brought together AFP and the NAACP, local resident Donna Cotterell observed that FSU's request for repair funding also emerged after the school pulled a $30 million requestfor the construction of a new convention center.

"It was baked in the cake a long time ago," she said of FSU's prior convention center request and how it led to the stadium ask.

Still, in approving funding for FSU and TCC, Blueprint opened the door to other asks.

What is Blueprint, anyway?

Blueprint is the Tallahassee-Leon County intergovernmental agency that funds infrastructure and economic development projects through a one-cent sales tax surcharge. It was created in 1989 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2014. The 2000 version of Blueprint had a pre-planned list of projects that voters could see get done. In 2014, voters approved a new list of projects for infrastructure improvements. But there's no current list for the 12% of the revenue that goes toward economic development, which is where the stadium money is coming from.

In a previous interview with WFSU, outgoing County Commissioner Kristin Dozier said a lot of the confusion around what Blueprint is and does could stem from the city and county not explaining Blueprint well enough.

“I have tried, even in the last year, to shine a light on that and actually got a motion passed to hold separate economic development and infrastructure meetings to address this very concern," she said.

In 2016 Dozier voted against the structure of the Office of Economic Vitality for this exact reason. OEV oversees the economic development side of Blueprint.

Timing of campaign donations to mayor fuels suspicion

“Eighty-thousand people going to a game, some come out hungry, some of them come out thirsty, and with needs where they will spend money. So this is not a close call with respect to economic development and what it means," Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor said of his support for funding FSU's request.   

Proctor is among the majority of commissioners backing the project due to the financial impact of Florida State football on the city. Still, that doesn’t mean Proctor's vote is a done deal. Right now, there are seven city and county commissioners in favor of the project and five against it. Should Proctor flip his vote the stadium funding proposal could be in deep trouble. Right now, Proctor is not happy with Mayor John Dailey.

“It looks like quid pro quo," Proctor said of the revelation that Dailey has received more than $20,000 in campaign contributions since December from current and past members of FSU's Board of Trustees and Boosters.

"I’m voting on it [and] ain’t no one fund me. I didn’t get a dollar. Other commissioners are voting and haven’t gotten a dollar. So what, and how, does this mayor gotten on a limb all alone, messing with these people and their wallet?”

Dailey's campaign donations were first reported by the local progressive blog site, Our Tallahassee. The report triggered the Leon County Democratic Executive Committee to issue a statement asking commissioners who got campaign donations from FSU stakeholders to return that money. Dailey, in defense of the donations, likened the Executive Committee’s statement to voter suppression.

“Now let’s be very clear," Dailey told reporters last week when asked about the contributions, "by rough estimates of about 100,000 people who graduated, work for or support FSU here locally, to suggest that they should not participate in the Democratic process is voter suppression and I will seriously never, ever, support that.”

To Proctor, there is no similarity whatsoever.

“You surely don’t put political greed and call it preventing voter suppression," he said, "and then he [Dailey] said ‘to suggest’ these people could not participate in a democratic process? Hell, we can’t even suggest that [the mere suggestion of asking to return the money] would be voter suppression?”  

Dailey's side points out that there have been several prior votes on the FSU stadium request, and that the mayor has consistently backed the project. They argue the December campaign donations have no bearing on his position and say his vote is not, nor has it been, influenced by money.

Upping the stakes

Proctor has been trying to get the city to annex several Southside Leon County voter precincts that fall just shy of city boundaries—meaning, the people who live there use City of Tallahassee utilities yet cannot vote in city elections. In a sharply worded letter to Dailey regarding the voter suppression comment, Proctor made a suggestion of his own: annex the precincts.

“It's because they’re Black, and they're redlined, and the city wants to take their money but does not want to reinvest and reciprocate the value of their money [back to them]," Proctor said of the resistance he's encountered to getting those precincts added back into city boundaries.

There has been some recent discussion at the city by Commissioner Diane Williams-Cox about adding those precincts to city limits. To do so would require an affirmative vote by residents. Should they say yes, they'd also have to pay city taxes.

Meanwhile, in 2020 the city voted to expand the urban service boundaries to include more of the Northeast Welaunee area—parts that have not been developed yet. And it's here, where Proctor sees hypocrisy: a largely white and growing suburb gets in…and a mostly minority and low-income area remains out. Proctor has made clear his vote is not a sure thing anymore.

All of this is making for tricky politics ahead of Blueprint’s final vote on whether to approve funding for FSU. There’s a mountain of growing opposition to the proposal. Yet there are people—aside from Proctor—who support giving FSU the money.

Former FSU Athletics Director David Coburn lobbied for the project back in May.

“I think you all know that’s very difficult to replicate in another fashion," he said at the time. "The request we have for you today is $20 million of one-time money. Those impacts are recurring every year. I don’t think you’re going to find that kind of return on investment, and it will happen very rapidly for this investment.”

What the Blueprint vote on FSU has done is expose some serious questions about exactly how deals like this get done. There are also fears funding FSU's stadium repair request will drain Blueprint’s ability to do any large-scale economic incentive programs for at least a decade. That’s because Blueprint is leveraging money that hasn’t been collected yet—which means the agency may not have anything left to do the kind of deals like the ones that brought Amazon to the area.

Updated: February 22, 2022 at 11:06 AM EST
An earlier version of this story said the Southside precincts were originally part of city limits. City research does not record these precincts as being in earlier versions of the urban services boundaries.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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