Mayor Demings wary of Universal’s SunRail expansion plan, cites ‘lack of transparency’

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings on Tuesday characterized Universal Orlando’s plan for creating a special taxing district to finance SunRail’s extension to International Drive and the theme park as secretive and potentially manipulative.

“There was a lack of transparency,” Demings said, speaking at an Orange County commissioners meeting. His comments that followed were pointed but guarded and made clear that he was neither opposing nor embracing Universal’s plan for SunRail’s expansion.

On Thursday, Universal, backed by International Drive tourism interests and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, proposed the special taxing district to help pay for establishing SunRail passenger train service from Orlando’s airport to a new station that would serve the Orange County Convention Center, International Drive and Universal. That rail link, called the Sunshine Corridor, would also be part of Brightline Trains’ extension from Orlando to Tampa.

Neither Brightline officials nor Demings were present when Universal announced its proposal for the taxing district, called a community development district, during a press conference. They were, however, described as informed and supportive.

“He’s on board, he’s fully briefed, he’s part of the solution,” said John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative at Universal Parks & Resorts, at the press conference of Demings.

“Prior to that press conference, 10 minutes or so before, staff received an electronic version of the application for this new community development district that Universal was proffering,” said Demings, who went on to say that he has been and will continue to be champion for transportation improvements.

“It should speak volumes to you that there was no Orange County representation at that presser,” Demings said.

Key stakeholders in efforts to expand SunRail via the Sunshine Corridor initiative – Dyer, Universal, the Florida Department of Transportation and Brightline – did not respond Tuesday afternoon for requests for comment. Dyer’s office said Demings’ remarks had not been reviewed.

Demings’ comments threw a wrench into what had otherwise appeared on the surface as broad and accelerating cooperation in Central Florida to push for federal funding that would boost rail transportation to a new level. The region’s key selling points to federal rail authorities are political unity, private-sector help and a technically doable project.

During the commissioners’ meeting, Demings described his elected role as a chief executive officer responsible for all of Orange County, but one with extensive experience as Orlando’s police chief and the county’s sheriff.

“I will not allow myself and this board to be manipulated by those who have their own different agenda at the end of the day that may or may not be in the best interest of our entire community,” Demings said.

“I know how to do investigations. I know when to think there have been some – I won’t use a legal term or criminal term of collusion – but behind-the-scenes deals that were not transparent,” Deming said.

He referred to the timing of a memo sent by Orange County Commissioner Mayra Uribe to himself and other commissioner extolling Universal’s proposal. The memo was dated Jan. 5, the same day as the press conference. In the memo, Uribe said she thought that the special taxing district plan would require Orange County to be a co-applicant with Universal and the city of Orlando

“Universal’s proposal to provide a light rail link between the airport and the proposed International Drive area station called the Sunshine Corridor seems to present great opportunities for our community on various fronts,” Uribe stated in the memo.

Uribe responded that her intent with the memo was to initiate public discussion on a subject – SunRail’s expansion – that otherwise evolves behind closed doors.

“We deserved to have a conversation as elected officials,” Uribe said. “If we don’t talk about it, we don’t know about it.”

Demings did not debate her support of the Universal proposal.

“The only thing I question is the timing of the press conference and the timing associated with when your memo came out,” Demings said. “There was a lack of transparency there. I’m going to call it like I see it.”

kspear@orlandosentinel.com