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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, May 7, 2004 18 years ago

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

This week's items: Bennett defends billThe Argus Foundation is having a barn burner of an event on May 13It's almost make-it or break-it time for Sarasota's Infinium Labs Legal profession, state survive

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

Bennett defends bill

The past three weeks Florida Sen. Mike Bennett, Bradenton, has been lambasted on the radio and in newspapers for a senate bill relating to land development. GCBR caught up with the senator to get his view on the controversy.

"It was really unfortunate," Bennett says. "A lot of national news services had reported to the radio stations that we were going to let cities take land to sell to Wal-Mart. It was pretty obvious, they never read the bill."

The bill, Senate Bill 2548, would have allowed local municipalities to assemble land from antiquated subdivisions. Half a century ago, companies, such as General Development Co., sold unusable lots in areas around the state.

"These people can't ever build on that property," Bennett says. "These are tiny lots ... some are no bigger than 500 feet. So consequently, a lot of people quit paying for their property ... and abandoned the land. This leaves the cities and counties maintaining these properties."

Bennett says local municipalities contacted him looking for a faster way to assemble than foreclosure. Bennett's earlier version of the bill would have given local governments the ability to reassemble these lots, even through the use of eminent domain. Governments across the states, including in nearby Charlotte County, have asserted they already have the right to condemn properties improperly platted for redevelopment. The bill would have codified that legal argument.

Faced with loud public opposition, the eminent domain provision was removed from the bill.

"I think we will be revisiting this issue," Bennett says. "We will probably be taking a look at it this summer. Hopefully, we will get a study commissioned. Hell, I'm a property rights guy. But I think we need to step out and look at the options."

Bennett concedes the proposal was controversial.

"I think we have way too many people that go to Tallahassee worried about the next election," he says. "I think that the story is that we do not want our legislators to be afraid to take on controversial issues. ¦ I do feel that we need to make sure that elected officials are not going to Tallahassee voting entirely for the next election."

Window of opportunity

The Argus Foundation is having a barn burner of an event on May 13. The public forum, set to run from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at The Hyatt Hotel Ballroom, is entitled, "Making Downtown a Place to Live, Shop and Work: Are we doing it?"

Bob Gibbs, an urban retail consultant with the Birmingham, Mich., firm of Gibbs Planning Group Inc., who typically covers town planning, retail analysis and landscape architecture for retailers and developers will discuss Sarasota's window of opportunity. He will join locals Michael Saunders, president of the real estate company Michael Saunders & Co., and Roger Hettema, a partner in the Sarasota property appraisal firm Hettema, Saba & Walch. The famed land planner Andres Duany, consultant to the city's master plan, will speak in a videotaped message.

"As of (May 4) we had 180 reservations," says Kerry Kirschner, executive director of The Argus Foundation. "I think we will probably be pushing 300. I would have been happy with 120. This is obviously a topic on people's minds. Everybody has been out selling residential space saying 'Come to downtown where you can live, work and play. Well, you can go to the grocery store, but that is about it. This is our window of opportunity to talk about the retail and office space in downtown ... before all the retail goes to Lakewood Ranch or Jacaranda."

Atom bomb and gaming

It is getting very close to make-it or break-it time for Sarasota's Infinium Labs Inc. Next week, from May 12-14, the company plans to debut its Phantom gaming system from an 8,000-square-foot booth at the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Expo, an annual videogame industry conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The company spent about $1.4 million on materials for the booth, of which roughly 80% is a non-recurring expense.

"This show is critical," says Tim Roberts, chairman and CEO. "As I have been telling people, we are dropping an atom bomb on the gaming community. We are revolutionizing the way games are being distributed. The eyes of the world are upon us. We will have an enormous presence. We will fit right in with the other 800-pound gorillas."

One of the big unknowns that could surface following E3 is bad feelings in the gaming media world about a lawsuit the company filed against HardOCP, a technology/software news Web site. Infinium accused site's owner of printing a libelous story about Roberts and Infinium.

Asked if the suit had spurred backlash, Roberts responded: "Not really. Maybe a little bit from the Internet Web sites. But actually we think it has helped our credibility by not allowing the media to print untrue salacious stories about us."

Roberts says Infinium plans to release the Phantom gaming system in the fourth quarter. "We will have the capacity to produce 500,000 units a month starting in October or November," he says.

Legal profession, state survive

Contrary to popular belief, especially among Florida lawyers, not all state legislators hate them.

Want proof?

The Trial Court Budget Commission won a $115 million appropriation for the first year that the state and not counties will fund as well as run local courts. The commissioners are generally happy with that number, especially since they will be able to tap working capital funds for any unexpected shortfalls.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and his appropriations chairman, Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, were determined to create a sixth district court of appeal during the just-concluded legislative session, with or without the legally required blessing of the state judiciary.

But the speaker, whose unpopularity in Tallahassee was starting to rival that of trial lawyers toward the end, got denied by his opposite number in the Senate, Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

Unfortunately for those who have to deal with overcrowded courts in heavily populated counties, a request for more judges perished with the DCA legislation. The Legislature hasn't funded any new judges since 2002. Better luck next year.

Steve Metz, chief legislative counsel for The Florida Bar, toldl members in his first post-adjournment report that prickly relations between Byrd and King made for a "very bizarre" last week of the 2004 regular session. On the final day, April 30, senators stood around waiting for the petulant Byrd to send over House bills for action. Most never arrived.

While Byrd passes from the state Capitol scene, King's successor, Republican Tom Lee of Brandon, has lawyer advertising on his radar screen for the 2005 session. Metz urged the bar to deal with the issue before next year, "because the incoming Sen[ate] President Tom Lee will take action if we don't."

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