MIAMI — Tampa leaders on Thursday flew to South Florida to check out Brightline’s ambitious combination of city-to-city rail service and $1.8 billion in downtown towers — both privately financed.
And seeing made the most vocal among them believers.
"I think we are looking at what our future looks like," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who led a delegation of about two dozen City Hall officials and business leaders to Brightline’s headquarters and massive MiamiCentral development project on the western edge of downtown Miami.
"While I won’t be the mayor to get this done, I’m going to do whatever I can in the time I have remaining to push this across the finish line to the extent that it’s possible," said Buckhorn, who leaves office due to term limits next May 1. "We are all in on this."
For Brightline, the private company that invited the delegation, there were at least two goals. One was to show off a bold vision for how transportation and redevelopment can be combined in ways where their strengths complement each other.
The other was about building relationships in what Brightline hopes is a future market. Brightline already runs a rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach, with plans to extend the line to Orlando by 2021. It also has proposed that the state clear the way for Brightline to create rail service between Orlando and Tampa.
Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal funding for high-speed rail on Interstate 4 in 2011. But now he has agreed to take bids on the idea.
"Depending on where we land in Tampa — and obviously, that’s still a question mark; we don’t have an answer for you today — we’re going to want to develop," Brightline president and chief operating officer Patrick Goddard told the Tampa delegation.
Inevitably, he said, something of Brightline’s scale and ambition draws opposition, and Goddard hoped the Tampa visitors would remember what they saw in Miami, then advocate for it.
"We’re going to want support," he said. "The group in this room and the support of the mayor and other elected officials, we’re going to count on when it matters."
Brightline has been developing high-end real estate in what used to be the Overtown area near downtown Miami for about five years. Brightline’s MiamiCentral project encompasses 1.6 million square feet, with two office towers, two apartment towers, 130,000 square feet of stores and restaurants and a train station. Financing for the development was two-thirds private equity, one-third private activity bonds.
In May, it started running a rail service with limited stops between downtown Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The trains — new, with good WiFi and roomy seating — move at up to 79 mph, about twice what traffic does on nearby Interstate 95. They can make money because, unlike commuter rail, they only have a few stops and thus need less in the way of staff and equipment, Goddard said.
Brightline’s station also includes connections to Miami-Dade’s Metrorail and its free electric Metromover line. The density of non-car mobility options appeals to residents and businesses like Ernst & Young, which recently moved into one of Brightline’s office buildings.
On Thursday, the Tampa delegation included Tampa International Airport administrators, representatives of Tampa Bay Lightning owner and developer Jeff Vinik, economic development officials and the Tampa Bay Rays’ chief development officer.
They came away impressed.
"Super impressed," said Ybor City real estate investor Darryl Shaw, who said he had talked with Brightline executives about the potential of the 7.6-acre GasWorx property, which he owns, near the proposed Rays stadium. The Rays want a parking garage built there, but Shaw said there may be space for something else, too.
Brightline also has scouted sites for a potential terminus in downtown, including three that could put Brightline and its development plans within walking distance of the proposed Rays stadium on the southern edge of Ybor City:
• The Tampa Park Apartments, owned by a nonprofit group led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. The future of the complex was recently thrown into doubt after it failed its fourth inspection in four years. Some renters are not being moved to Section 8 housing, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to withdraw rent subsidies for more than half the units.
• The old N Morgan Street jail site, which is owned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and has been considered as a rail station site a couple of times in the past.
• Tampa Union Station, owned by the city of Tampa, which currently handles Amtrak’s Silver Service.
In South Florida, of Buckhorn’s counterparts — Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean J. Trantalis — said Tampa leaders would be smart to consider what Brightline could offer.
"A no-brainer," Gimenez said. The area of downtown Miami where Brightline has settled used to be a dead zone, with not even a grocery store for decades. But one is coming, Brightline executives say, and Gimenez said that part of downtown "doesn’t shut down at 6 o’clock any more. The place is hopping."
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