Developer disputes City of Tampa decision to award ‘Rome Yard’ contract to company that donated to mayor, and employs her nephew

However, it's unclear what Invictus' protest is about.

click to enlarge Developer disputes City of Tampa decision to award ‘Rome Yard’ contract to company that donated to mayor, and employs her nephew
Photo via Related

A developer is contesting the City of Tampa’s decision to award a multi-million dollar construction contract to Miami-based Related Group, which donated $10,000 to Mayor Jane Castor’s election PAC and currently employs her nephew, records show.

A document shared with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay by the City of Tampa on Monday afternoon shows that one “Rome Yard” finalist—InVictus Development, LLC—has filed a protest to contest the city’s decision.

A bid protest bond basically saying that InVictus will pay up to $20,000 if it loses its protest was signed on April 7, and CL has asked the City of Tampa to send copies of Invictus’ protest and any subsequent appeals since they are not yet uploaded to the RFP portal. CL has also asked about dates regarding arbitration hearings—public or private—related to Invictus’ protest.

On March 17, the City of Tampa posted its intent to award Related—listed as RUDG LLC on the RFP—to its Request for Proposal portal. A day later on March 18, Castor wrote that she was thrilled to announce that Related Group was selected to work “a project that will transform West Tampa for generations to come.”

According to the RFP, the Rome Yard is approximately “18-acres of City-owned real property located immediately west of the Hillsborough River, east of Rome Avenue, south of Columbus Drive and north of Spruce Street in the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area.”

Without documents detailing the protest, it’s unclear what Invictus—which placed second in the final scoring for the Rome Yard project—is contesting.

When reached by CL, a representative for Invictus would not comment on the matter. City Council chair Guido Maniscalco—whose council will have to approve the deal with Related—could not be reached for comment on Monday afternoon.

While the intent of the protest is unknown, records and publicly available information obtained by CL, show that the context surrounding the City of Tampa’s decision to award the contract to Related is questionable, to say the least. 

According to filings with the Florida Department of State Division of Elections (DOS), Related Urban Development Group LLC, donated $10,000 on March, 21, 2019, to Castor’s “Tampa Strong” election political committee.

In February of 2021, the City of Tampa narrowed down the selection process for the project to just three companies, including Related. The same DOS records show that the other two companies selected as finalists—Invictus and Onicx/TRS Development Services—donated zero dollars to Castor’ PAC. 

A representative for TRS would not comment on why the company didn’t donate to Castor’s PAC. When contacted about the donation to Castor’s PAC, a rep for Related told CL that their company would “not be commenting at this time.”

According to records, Related’s donation to Castor was its largest ever as a company, and it was a rarity. The developer has only donated to one other political candidate in Florida, and that was $1,000 in January of 2020 to Miami Beach State Rep. Michael Grieco, who besides overseeing their “largest market,” had previously pleaded no contest for campaign finance violations, and was accused of bribery, among other things. 

Political candidates, especially Florida mayors, receive quite a few donations from real estate and development companies, and Castor is no exception. Records show Castor’s election PAC raised just over $1 million between July of 2017 and April of 2019, and developer-related entities made-up more than 60%, totaling an estimated $602,200.

Unsurprisingly, one of the largest individual donations to Castor came from Tampa-based American Investment Holdings, which donated $50,000 on March 25, 2019. The company—owned by local billionaire and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik—is currently working on the Water Street Tampa redevelopment project. 

The Rome Yard project is a partnership with the Tampa Housing Authority and plans to add new retail space, affordable and market-rate housing, as well as features like a “resort-style pool,” an observation “cigar tower,” and workforce force training center, among other things. Castor also stated that the company committed a minimum of $75 million in contracts for minority-and women-owned businesses.  

In a glowing piece from the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, the paper praised the project, calling Related “a major player in Tampa’s development boom” and noted that the “city and the company have an established working relationship and a shared interest in building a quality community.”

It’s true, Related has worked with the City of Tampa before, and currently has a few active development contracts, including the $350 million project to redevelop Tampa’s West River area, and the Ritz-Carlton Residences project on Bayshore.

According to the Times, Castor’s public nod to Related is merely a “preliminary selection.” That means the company essentially won the project, but a final contract will still have to be negotiated between the two parties and approved by Tampa City Council.

But besides glaring pay-for-play optics, the Rome Yard contract is also problematic since the mayor’s nephew, Alexander Castor, is listed as an Assistant Construction Manager, who will “oversee all aspects of the construction process” with Related Urban Development. This potential conflict of interest was left out of a Related RFP form posted on Feb. 15

That same RFP form includes a conflict of interest disclosure form, which asks the applicant to disclose any immediate family (“spouse, parents and children of the person involved”), close personal relationship (“dating, cohabitation and/or having an intimate sexual relationship”) or controlling financial interest. The form on Related’s RFP is marked “no” and signed by Related group’s Albert Milo, Jr.

City of Tampa spokesperson Janelle McGregor told CL that Mayor Castor had no bearing on the decision to select Related for the project. 

“At no point was Mayor Castor involved in any part of this RFP selection process, which took place in a very public and transparent manner and under the close watch of concerned community members operating independent of the City,” said McGegor in an email to CL.  “This was the first time community members participated in selecting a developer, and that final selection committee ultimately chose the developer they felt would make the biggest investment in their community by providing the most homes along with an opportunity for minority-owned companies to earn a minimum of $75 million--over and above what the RFP required.”

While Castor may not have directly taken part in the RFP process, experts argue her nephew’s involvement still should have been made public. 

Darryl Paulson, a retired Professor Emeritus of Government at the ‎University of South Florida St. Petersburg looked at the RFP’s disclosure form, but told CL that he wonders about the lack of an explanation as to why employing a nephew of the mayor is not a conflict.

“When you have a direct family relationship to the mayor, at the very least, it should be pointed out so decision makers can reach their own conclusion,” Paulson—who taught courses on public administration plus local and state politics—wrote.  

“Why would you not disclose such information?  It may not be an issue, but the committee making the decision needs to know this, as well as the citizens of Tampa,” Paulson added. “It is like saying non-disclosure is preferable to full disclosure. It makes no sense to me.”

While the official Rome Yard agreement is not set in stone, as of today, parts of the fencing near the North Boulevard Bridge already have signage indicating that Related has been selected to develop the land.

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About The Authors

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...

Colin Wolf

Colin Wolf has been working with weekly newspapers since 2007 and has been the Digital Editor for Creative Loafing Tampa since 2019. He is also the Director of Digital Content Strategy for CL's parent company, Euclid Media Group.
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