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Tampa should start over with Rome Yard project | Editorial
West Tampa redevelopment needs to be free of improper appearances.
Looking southeast at the downtown Tampa skyline from an area known as the Rome Yard on April 16, 2021.
Looking southeast at the downtown Tampa skyline from an area known as the Rome Yard on April 16, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 13

The city of Tampa should throw out the bids to redevelop the Rome Yard. The selection of a developer has been tainted, and there’s no sense in allowing bad appearances to discredit a project that will transform West Tampa. Starting over will cost the city time, and there’s no guarantee what developers or proposals might come forward. But there’s every reason to believe that developers will remain interested in the site, especially if a do-over affirms public confidence in the city’s procurement process.

The city announced in March it had tentatively selected Miami-based Related Urban Development Group to remake the Rome Yard, an 18-acre parcel in West Tampa the city had used to store and maintain trucks and equipment. Located between Rome Avenue and the Hillsborough River, and south of Columbus Drive, the tract is minutes from downtown, on a bluff overlooking the river, with easy access to Tampa International Airport, Tampa Heights and South Tampa.

This is prime real estate for a growing urban center, and Related’s proposal hit the mark, envisioning a mixed-use neighborhood of affordable and market-rate housing, retail, space for startups and workforce training and a host of public amenities, from an amphitheater and great lawn to a brick observation tower meant to honor the cigar factories that shaped West Tampa’s Latin history.

But the Tampa Bay Times reported this month that Related’s self-described “partner” on the Rome Yard is the Tampa Housing Authority, which renewed a consulting contract in February with a Tampa engineering firm whose president, Joe Robinson, later played a role in Related’s selection. Less than a month after his company renewed the contract with the housing authority, Robinson — who served on the city’s selection committee for the Rome Yard — led an effort to change the scoring process, thus giving “a competitive advantage to Related,” according to a protest filed by another bidder, Tampa-based Invictus, LLP.

The Times also recently reported that Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s nephew, Alex Castor, works for Related, which wasn’t disclosed during the initial selection process. The month before Related was named as the city’s top choice, the mayor’s partner, Ana Cruz, toured Tampa with the Miami firm’s founder, Jorge Pérez. They later traveled to the West River development near the Rome Yard where Related is building a new, mixed-use community in conjunction with the housing authority. Cruz also works for Ballard Partners, a lobbying and communications firm that helped Related in advance of the March selection committee meeting.

Jane Castor has said she doesn’t see any conflicts with Cruz or Alex Castor’s involvement, and Cruz said Ballard has a policy that she won’t profit from any work the firm does with the city. Cruz didn’t join Perez on his tour of the West River development and said she didn’t discuss the Rome Yard or any other city business with him. And while the contract for Robinson’s firm is with the housing authority, the Rome Yard contract is a city deal. Robinson also declared in November as part of the bid documents that “my firm has no intention of doing anything on this project;” it was “my plan,” he said, to be part of the selection committee representing West Tampa business and civic leaders. And the housing authority’s contract with Robinson’s firm involved a downtown project, not the Rome Yard, the agency noted.

“The optics aren’t good, I get that,” Cruz acknowledged to the Times. “But the optics and the truth are very, very far part.”

Still, appearances matter. Nobody in the mayor’s orbit should have been meeting with Related’s chief executive at the time. And Robinson and the housing authority should have foreseen the blowback on a contract with Related’s bid pending. These were multiple, preventable lapses in judgment that understandably raised red flags, and drew negative attention to what should be a rallying point of community pride.

The quickest, cleanest way to get this project on track is for the city to toss the bids and start over with the competitive selection process. It should also consider appointing only city employees to the selection board. There are plenty of ways to involve community leaders without muddying the lines of authority. A do-over would also signal to the private sector the city’s seriousness as a partner.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.