May 25, 2020

Orlando's mayor: Buddy Dyer

Amy Keller | 4/27/2020

Dyer and his defenders said the charges were politically motivated and that no one had intended to break the law. It later came out that Hood and other Republicans had also used the same get-out-the-vote consultant to collect absentee ballots in their campaigns. Six weeks after the indictments were handed down, Florida prosecutors dropped the charges, and Bush reinstated Dyer.

An even more complicated challenge came 11 years later, when a gunman walked into the Pulse nightclub, a popular gay bar on south Orange Avenue, and began shooting.

Dyer was in bed when he received the call from Orlando’s deputy chief of police around 3 a.m. on June 12, 2016. Dyer headed to a command center near the club and began organizing a communication plan. The situation played out throughout the wee hours of the morning, ending with the death of the shooter, who had killed 49 patrons and injured dozens of others.

While the FBI labeled the massacre a terrorist attack and took charge of the investigation, Dyer convinced the bureau he should lead the press conference. He insisted the public needed someone they knew, not an anonymous person in an FBI jacket, to share information about the tragedy.

“He came out of the gate saying, ‘We will not let hate win.’ It wasn’t a bunch of marketing people or a crisis management team who came up with it — that was Buddy,” Downs recalls. “He said it forever, and he still says it. It was just a balm on everyone’s spirits.”

Behind the scenes, he hustled to notify the family of victims as quickly as possible. “He made phone calls to very high-level people in this country to have them authorize the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to find these families,” Downs says. “He just kept saying over and over again, ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a parent and not know if your child was alive.’ It was really hard.”

Challenges ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a pall over the cranes dotting the city’s downtown skyline and has created a new test of Dyer’s leadership.

As infections, deaths and fear rise across the country, a March report from the Brookings Institution predicts that Orlando could take a harder hit from the “COVID-19 recession” than other cities. The report lists Las Vegas as being the “most exposed” out of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, with Orlando, the “theme park capital of the country,” following close behind. According to the report, 27.3% of jobs in Orlando are in industries “most at risk,” such as leisure and hospitality.

With 3½ years left in his term, other challenges remain for Dyer.

While programs have reduced the number of displaced veterans in recent years, homelessness continues to plague Orlando’s downtown. The benches in front of City Hall are sleeping quarters for some, and aggressive panhandlers solicit downtown workers on a daily basis. Downtown businesses complain about vagrants using bushes, sidewalks and doorways as toilets.

To try to combat the problem, the city has hired dozens of “downtown ambassadors” to escort workers and residents to their cars and connect panhandlers to social services that might help them. Since 2015, the mayor has supported a “housing first” strategy in Central Florida that utilizes private donations to pay for permanent housing for the chronically homeless. “There were days when the city was battling groups that were feeding the homeless in the park and stuff. (Dyer’s) really changed the city strategy from trying to force folks out of the view of people to try to get them into apartments,” says Mike Griffin, chair of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.

Tackling other problems, including a lack of affordable housing and an inadequate transportation infrastructure, will also require regional cooperation. Dyer would like to see SunRail extended to Orlando International Airport — but funding for the project and other transportation initiatives will depend on whether Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings can get voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase.

The tax proposal was to be on the November ballot but has been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis. While Dyer’s relationships with previous county mayors including Jacobs were strained at times, he and Demings — who oversees a bigger budget, staff and region than Dyer — have known each other for decades and work well together. The former Orlando police chief calls Dyer “easygoing” and says he was “one of the first to embrace my transportation tax and housing initiatives, and I reciprocate by supporting his initiatives.”

Revitalizing Parramore and other blighted neighborhoods remains at the top of Dyer’s agenda.

There are pockets of progress. With Dyer’s help, the non-profit group LIFT Orlando and its Atlanta-based development partner, Columbia Residential, tore down the dilapidated and crime-ridden Washington Commons Apartments near Camping World Stadium and replaced it with Pendana at West Lakes, a 200-unit, mixed income apartment complex.

And in February, Dyer was all smiles at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for KRS Wealth Management, the first business to open in the new Amelia Court complex in Creative Village. “I like to say I am the happiest mayor in America — days like this are why I am happy,” he told the small crowd gathered on the sidewalk along Parramore Avenue.

But as redevelopment proceeds in Parramore, some longtime residents worry that single-family homes in the predominantly African-American community will be knocked down to make way for high-rise apartments with rents they can’t afford. Dyer has vowed “not to leave our neighbors behind” in Parramore, but political allies such as Morgan admit it will be a tough fix “without just a full-blown gentrification.”

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