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Rome Yard bid process was unfair, says losing bidder in lucrative Tampa West River project

Joe Robinson, a West Tampa activist at the center of the firm’s protest, praises mayor for inclusiveness
The downtown Tampa skyline seen from an area known as the Rome Yard on Friday, April 16, 2021.
The downtown Tampa skyline seen from an area known as the Rome Yard on Friday, April 16, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 16
Updated Apr. 16

TAMPA — A protest filed this week by a Tampa-based development firm alleges that irregularities in the bid process for the rights to develop prime West Tampa property tipped the scales toward Related, a rival contractor and powerful player in city politics.

Invictus, LLC, filed the protest with the city March 24. The 14-page document contends that the selection committee threw out minority, women-owned and small business outreach scores among the three finalists.

That decision hurt Invictus, which had the highest overall scores of the three finalists in the final selection round after the field was narrowed from six applicants to three.

Invictus’s lawyer, Lanse Scriven, is the husband of U.S. District Court Judge Mary Scriven, who administered the oath of office to Mayor Jane Castor at Armature Works in May 2019. Lanse Scriven wrote in the protest document that the change in rules in the selection committee meeting — which selected a preliminary winner — were “arbitrary and capricious” and benefited Related.

Scriven declined comment Friday, citing a gag order while the protest is underway.

At the center of the dispute is Joe Robinson, a longtime West Tampa community leader who said he has been trying to secure more opportunities for minority-owned businesses and community members for the Rome Yard site.

Invictus’s protest implies Robinson did the opposite: By making a motion to throw out the minority business scores violated the city’s bidding rules, Robinson hurt minorities as well as Invictus.

According to an audio recording of the meeting that the Times obtained through a public records request, the city’s administrator for economic opportunity and development, Carol Post, raised concerns about Robinson’s motion to scrap the previous scoring and start again.

But the selection committee went along with Robinson.

Robinson said Friday he can’t respond to those allegations because of a gag order the city imposes on those who review bids.

But for context, he did discuss a failed 2019 request-for-proposal initiated by former Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

That process was aborted, Buckhorn said this week, because he didn’t feel any of the three finalists, including Related, had fully formed proposals. He deferred to Jane Castor, the incoming mayor.

In an interview, Robinson shared a different take.

“They had it all planned out and we said ‘Wait a minute. Ain’t nobody told us nothing about that,” Robinson said, adding that Buckhorn pulled the deal shortly after Robinson and others raised objections about the lack of details and community participation.

Robinson and the West Tampa Community Development Area’s Citizen Advisory Committee then strongly suggested that before issuing a new bid, the city should solicit more community and minority participation.

Implying that there was no need to include the minority scores in the current bid, Robinson said Castor proved good to her word, including developing a strategic plan with community members.

The mayor “wanted to make sure the community had involvement,” Robinson said.

Castor has said repeatedly this week that she has had no involvement in the project since the city’s wish list for the property hit the street to solicit developer interest.

But she did commemorate Related’s initial selection by the committee with a well-attended news conference at the Rome Yard site in mid-March. The city still has to negotiate with the eventual winning bidder. Under city rules, the Invictus protest will be heard by a hearing officer.

City Attorney Gina Grimes said the hearing will take place on April 22.

Since Castor’s news conference, it has been revealed that the mayor’s nephew, Alex Castor, works for Related, which donated $10,000 to Castor’s mayoral campaign.

Related: Tampa's Rome Yard bid in dispute

Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, has also been indirectly involved, through her employment at Ballard Partners, a powerful lobbying firm.

Ballard was hired to help Related prepare for the final selection committee meeting in early March. Cruz said this week she was not involved in that work. Her colleague, Todd Josko, helped prep Related executives.

Alex Castor and Cruz weren’t factors in the city’s decision to initially award the RFP to Related, Castor told the Tampa Bay Times this week.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says Related deal won't benefit relatives

Related or its public relations firm, to which the company directed inquiries on the Rome Yard bid, hasn’t yet responded to requests for comment on the revelations.

The company plans a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, retail space, a workforce training center, musical amphitheater, sculpture gardens, “micro” retail space for local startups as well as an area set aside for “artist work areas.”

The plan also includes a “great lawn” for movies or yoga, a resort-style pool and an observation “cigar tower” made of brick made to evoke the historic cigar factories in the area. Related also said it’s partnering with local historian Fred Hearns for a West Tampa Cultural Center and Art Pavilion.

The development company also committed to a minimum of $75 million in contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses, Castor has said.

InVictus’s president, Paula Rhodes, said she is banned from talking because of the gag order, which also bars interested parties in discussing a bid before final approval by the City Council.

Robinson cites the same restrictions as a member of the selection committee, but he said he will talk as soon as the gag order is lifted.

West Tampa CRA citizen advisory committee members elected him to the selection committee, a first in city history, Robinson said.

“Nobody has subpoenaed me yet, " Robinson quipped.

He later elaborated by saying he hasn’t been approached by anyone for comment about the potential deal nor would he comment if approached by anyone.