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Tampa activist Joe Robinson at center of Rome Yard controversy

Robinson signed a $75,000 contract with the Tampa Housing Authority a month before initiating a controversial move during the bid process.
Joe Robinson (pointing to paper) , an engineer and lifelong West Tampa resident, talks with Leroy Moore of the Tampa Housing Authority about transportation projects planned for the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area. The two took part in a listening and learning tour that the Florida Department of Transportation organized on Nov. 30, 2018.
Joe Robinson (pointing to paper) , an engineer and lifelong West Tampa resident, talks with Leroy Moore of the Tampa Housing Authority about transportation projects planned for the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area. The two took part in a listening and learning tour that the Florida Department of Transportation organized on Nov. 30, 2018. [ Times (2018) ]
Published May 4
Updated May 5

TAMPA — A disputed bid process in the city’s prime development parcel already has some optic problems.

Family members of Mayor Jane Castor have been tied to the deal with Related, a Miami-based developer that won the initial nod to develop the Rome Yard. The former city truck lot covers 18 acres of mouth-watering real estate, with the Hillsborough River, Armature Works, the Riverwalk and the burgeoning West River neighborhood nearby.

This week, the Tampa Bay Times learned that Joe Robinson, a longtime West Tampa activist and engineer, signed a $75,000 professional services contract with a partner to the deal, the Tampa Housing Authority.

Robinson, who was involved in the Related pick as a selection committee member, initiated a move during a March meeting to throw out minority outreach scores, a successful effort that led to Related being ranked higher than Invictus.

The revelations about the Rome Yard began weeks after Mayor Jane Castor announced in March that Related, which has built several high profile projects in Tampa and has had a close relationship with City Hall, was the preliminary pick to develop the property.

Later in March, one of the losing bids, Tampa’s Invictus, LLC, filed a protest, saying that the selection committee had changed the bid process at the last minute to favor Related.

Related: Tampa Rome Yard bid in dispute

Part of the complaint points to Robinson’s role as a selection committee member and his motion to disregard minority and women outreach scores by the three finalists. That move was part of an “arbitrary and capricious” bid process, according to Invictus.

Related: Robinson plays crucial role

The Tampa Housing Authority is involved in developing the city-owned land as part of the Related’s bid, which envisions 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 things like movies or yoga in the park, 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.

Robinson signed a professional engineering contract for up to $75,000 with the housing authority in February, a month before Robinson’s actions as a selection committee member — now under dispute — took place.

Robinson didn’t want to speak about whether he should have disclosed that contract to the city Tuesday. He said previous coverage in the Tampa Bay Times had been slanted against him and suggested another story could bring a legal response.

“That’s (tortious) interference if you keep going that route,” Robinson said to a reporter before declining to comment further.

Housing authority officials say that Robinson has been paid about $9,000 since 2014-15 for his work on the authority’s Encore project. They couldn’t locate any payments since he signed his 2021 contract with the agency.

That contract called for Robinson’s firm to perform professional engineering consulting work for “various” projects. The exact amount of which was left open in the contract, giving the housing authority the sole power to decide how much work to give Robinson.

Did Robinson disclose his housing authority work to the city? The mayor’s office emailed late Tuesday to say that Robinson had “while not obligated to do so ... recently disclosed that RHCA, the company by which he is retained, has a contract with THA.”

Castor’s office did issue a statement this week explaining Robinson’s involvement in the bid process.

“In listening to the community, one of the key lessons learned was the need for more robust community engagement in both creating the RFP and selecting the developer. Since the Rome Yard is located within the West Tampa CRA footprint, it was natural for members of its Community Advisory Committee who are deeply impacted by the revitalization of this area to have a voice in reissuing the RFP. The CAC selected a representative and an alternate to serve on the selection committee as part of the administration’s innovative and transparent approach to enhancing the project’s public engagement,” the statement read.

Robinson is chairman of the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area’s citizen advisory committee, which elected him to the committee.

Robinson’s role is the latest of several eyebrow-raising developments with the Rome Yard bid.

Castor’s nephew, Alex Castor, works for Related, a fact that wasn’t disclosed during the initial selection process. The mayor’s partner, Ana Cruz, works for Ballard Partners, a lobbying and communications firm that worked with Related in advance of the March selection committee meeting.

Related also donated $10,000 to Castor’s 2019 mayoral campaign through a political action committee.

Castor has said that she doesn’t see any conflicts with Cruz or Alex Castor’s involvement. Cruz has said Ballard has a policy that she won’t profit from any work the powerful national firm does with the city.

And plenty of big city mayors accept donations from well-heeled developers.

Related: Mayor Castor says Related deal doesn't contain personal conflicts for nephew, partner

“We have an ordinance in place that establishes a fair and thorough review by an independent magistrate, and we will let that process unfold and follow the magistrate’s decision,” Castor’s statement read.

Council member Orlando Gudes, who represents the area, said Tuesday he is prohibited by bidding regulations from commenting on what is still an active bid. But he said his priority for the Rome Yard has always been to ensure proper minority participation in its development.

An administrative hearing on the appeal by Invictus is scheduled for May 12