In a controversial decision to allow advertising along trails and greenways in the state parks system, the Department of Environmental Protection on April 3 inked a deal with Bikepath Country Florida, a Fort Myers company whose managing partners include two powerful Tallahassee insiders.
The contract -- for one year, renewable -- calls for Bikepath Country Florida to develop and maintain a system of sponsored signs along seven of the state's recreational trails. Half the gross revenue from the sponsors goes to the state; the rest, less expenses, stays with the company.
Bikepath Country Florida is the offspring of New York State company Bikepath Country, Inc. (originally Bike Path Billboards, Inc.). It first incorporated in Florida in April 2011 as Bikepath Country Florida, Inc., but in October of that year converted to an LLC, adding lobbying firm Smith, Bryan and Myers and lobbyist J. Emmett Reed as managing partners.
Smith Bryan is among the top tier of Tallahassee lobbyists in influence and earnings. Reed was CEO of the Florida Home Builders Association for 11 years and since 2009 has been Executive Director of the Florida Health Care Association, the state's nursing home trade association. The FHCA is among Smith Bryan's clients, as is Bikepath Country Florida.
The Bikepath Country funny business started last year in New York, when the company sought and failed to win approval for a trail sign sponsorship deal with Putnam and Westchester Counties. Hudson Valley cyclists and other trail lovers mobilized against the plan, reporters from Gannett published articles critical of the company for misrepresentations in their contract bid as well as pie-in-the-sky accounting.
Bikepath loaded up on political clout in New York, according to Gannett, which described the company's plan as a:
backroom deal that County Executive MaryEllen Odell has masterminded for Bikepath Country President Ivan Bellotto, the Camp Kiwi owner who touted his political fundraising abilities in his proposal to the county, and Richie O'Keefe, the former Carmel Town Councilman who's part of the powerful Republican family in Putnam County. His sister, Suzi McDonough, sits on the Carmel Town Board and is chief of staff of state Sen. Greg Ball, Another O'Keefe sister was married to Carmel Town Supervisor Ken Schmidt. O'Keefe and Bellotto are among nine partners in Bikepath Country, which has ambitions to sell outdoor advertising on trailways across the nation.
The New York proposal was shot down by the Putnam County legislature in early July; later that month Bikepath withdrew the plan, writing to County Executive Odell that "At this time, it has been decided by our board of directors that it is in the best business interest to focus in the areas where we have agreements in place."
Bikepath Florida's trail signs contract is the end product of the 2012 "John Anthony Wilson Bicycle Safety Act," legislation that was intended to provide revenue for upkeep of state trails and for bicycle safety education. (Wilson was a Boca Raton fireman who died when he was bicycling and struck by an SUV.) Bikepath estimates the program will deliver $55,200 to the state in its first year.
Matt Bryan, principal at Smith Bryan, and J. Emmett Reed both failed to respond to New Times' queries about their ownership interest or profit participation in Bikepath Florida. (A Florida Health Care Association press rep described Reed as "more of a silent partner.")
When we questioned Bikepath Country Florida President Ivan Bellotto about the lobbyists' interests and the company's New York troubles he ignored the former and denied the latter. This was the totality of his reply:
Thank you for your inquires about Bikepath Country. It is our position we have never misrepresented our company with Putnam County, we simply stated we were in active negotiations with different entities in Florida. At this time Bikepath Country has signed agreements and has implemented the replacement and beautification of existing signage with Pinellas County. We have also signed a very restrictive agreement with Florida Department of Environmental Protection allowing signage at dedicated trailheads and access points. We have also had conversations with other Florida Counties and cities of which we have begun negotiations but have not signed any other agreements at this time. Again thank you for your interest in Bikepath Country.
When DEP put the parks trails ad sales contract out for bid, Bikepath Florida was the sole respondent. But given the company's history and structure, we wondered why go with them at all. Here's the exchange New Times had with DEP press aide Russell Budell:
1) How much revenue does the state expect to realize from its ad sales deal with Bikepath?
We cannot predict the revenue until Bike Path Country starts getting sponsors and can determine the market rate.
2) Did DEP estimate how much it would cost the agency to run the ad sales program itself rather than outsource it?
The Legislation says that the program cannot be a cost to the state. Staffing is not available to run the sponsorship sales program.
3) Is DEP aware of Bikepath's troubled history in New York State?
Yes, we are aware.
4) Is DEP aware of Matt Bryan's status as a managing partner in Bikepath FL LLC?
Director Forgione approved the contract after consulting with the DEP leadership team and based on staff recommendations.
Delray Beach state Rep. Irv Slosberg, who originated the John Anthony Wilson law that authorized the ad sales program (which law Bikepath Florida lobbied for) slammed DEP and the Bikepath contract.
"The bid was such a lowball," he told New Times. "And it took them a couple of years. I was shocked."
"DEP is so poor at communicating on this," an audibly agitated Slosberg replied, when asked if he was aware of the lobbyists' executive positions at Bikepath. "They didn't tell me, they didn't tell you, they didn't tell anyone. They're off in some fiefdom."
Aside from questions of politicking, a more fundamental objection to parks trails ads is held by William C. Jonson, President of Citizens for Scenic Florida. Here's what he wrote to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard last September:
In Florida, our natural and scenic resources enjoy Constitutional protection. Commercial advertising in the public's most scenic outdoor places undercuts that promise and is contrary to the public interest. Such advertising may be appropriate elsewhere but not here. There is an old maxim, "a pig in a barn is fine, but not in your living room."
Here's where you can contact DEP's Office of Greenways and Trails.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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