Reedy Creek Improvement District

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Appoints Charbel Barakat to Recently Vacated Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board Seat

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has announced a new appointment to the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. DeSantis has appointed Charbel Barakat to the board. This comes after former board member Michael Sasso resigned from the board. This is the ruling board for the district that replaced the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. The following bio was released by Governor Desantis’ office about Barakat:

Barakat, of Tampa, is the Regional General Counsel for D.R. Horton, Inc. He currently serves as a Commissioner for the Second District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission and serves on the Florida Development Finance Corporation. Barakat is Vice President of the Federalist Society for the Tampa Bay Chapter and Chairman of the Volume Builders Council for the Florida Home Builders Association. Barakat earned his bachelor’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University and his juris doctor from New York University School of Law.

The Office of Governor Ron DeSantis

The appointment of Barakat comes as DeSantis and Disney continue to face off over the future of the district. This specific appointment could be helpful to the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District as it finds itself in the midst of two lawsuits, one from Disney and one the board filed against Disney. It is most likely that the future of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District will be determined in court.

DeSantis Dispute with Disney

The dispute between DeSantis and Disney began last year when then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek came out against the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, more commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This led to a feud that has lasted over a year now between what DeSantis calls “woke Disney” and the DeSantis administration in Florida. Since the controversy erupted, Florida has sought to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which it did, and replace it with its own governing body. This new body is the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The board for this district is appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis which is then subject to approval by the Florida Senate.

Just before the law was signed that changed the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Disney, and Reedy Creek signed a development agreement that set the course for the coming decades for the district and tied the hands of the new district leadership. This led to even more controversy as DeSantis, the Florida Legislature, and the new board have all tried to undo this agreement. Ultimately, this led to Disney suing DeSantis and other Florida leaders (including the board members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District) in an effort to return things to the former status quo. At this point, that lawsuit will be heard by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, Florida. The DeSantis legal team has filed a motion to have him disqualified, which Disney has come out against.

DeSantis has argued that Disney has been getting unfair treatment in the state with the ability to self-govern in the former Reedy Creek Improvement District and are skirting Florida law with the development agreement. “They (Disney) are not superior to the laws that are enacted by the state of Florida.” DeSantis also said, “They thought they could create a development agreement that would render everything we did null and void. That’s not going to work, that’s not going to fly.”

The reality of the matter is that Disney has made every move within the laws of the state of California. The State of Florida itself approved the Comprehensive Plan upon which the Development Agreement which DeSantis is trying to render “null and void” is based. This was done on July 17, 2022. It was finalized on February 8, 2023, with Reedy Creek Improvement District.

After the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board and Governor DeSantis discovered this Development Agreement and began to attack it, Disney released the following statement on March 28, 2023: “All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.”   

Along with trying to nullify the development agreement, DeSantis has also moved forward with efforts for more oversight, taxes, and other initiatives which current Disney CEO Bob Iger has called “retaliation.” While DeSantis might now be framing the disagreement as being centered on self-government and fairness. His earlier words have indicated that this is about disagreeing with Disney’s political stances, messages, and statements.

“Regarding Florida” – Bob Iger

In an earnings call last month, Iger addressed the controversy. “Regarding Florida, I have a few things I want to say about that bill,” Iger said. “First of all, the case that we filed last month made our position and the facts very clear. This is about one thing and one thing only, and that’s retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation. And we believe that in us taking that position, we are merely exercising our right to free speech. Also, this is not about special privileges, or a level playing field, or Disney in any way using its leverage around the state of Florida.”

Iger continued saying, “But since there’s been a lot said about special districts and the arrangement that we had, I want to set the record straight on that, too. There are about 2,000 special districts in Florida, and most were established to foster investment in development. We were one of them. It basically made it easier for us, and others by the way, to do business in Florida. And we built a business that employs, as we’ve said before, over 75,000 people and attracts tens of millions of people to the state. So while it’s easy to say that the Reedy Creek special district, which was established for us over 50 years ago, benefited us, it’s misleading to not also consider how much Disney benefited the state of Florida. And we’re not the only company operating a special district. I mentioned the Daytona Speedway has one, a prominent retirement community, and there are countless others. So if the goal here is leveling the playing field and the uniform application of the law, government oversight of special districts needs to occur or be applied to all special districts.”

He wrapped up his thoughts by addressing the false tax break narrative saying, “There’s also a false narrative that we’ve been fighting to protect tax breaks. But in fact, we’re the largest taxpayer in Central Florida, paying over $1 billion in state and local taxes last year alone. We pay more taxes, specifically more real estate taxes, as a result of that special district, and we all know there was no concerted effort to do anything to dismantle what was once called Reedy Creek special district until we spoke out on the legislation. So this is plainly a matter of retaliation, while the rest of the Florida special districts continue operating basically as they were. I think it’s also important for us to say our primary goal has always been to be able to continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing there, which is investing in Florida. We’re proud of the tourism industry that we created and we want to continue delivering the best possible experience for guests going forward. We never wanted, and we certainly never expected, to be in the position of having to defend our business interests in federal court, particularly having such a terrific relationship with the state as we’ve had for more than 50 years. And as I mentioned on our shareholder call, we have a huge opportunity to continue to invest in Florida. I noted that our plans are to invest $17 billion over the next 10 years, which is what the state should want us to do. We operate responsibly. We pay our fair share of taxes. We employ thousands of people and, by the way, we pay them substantially above the minimum wage dictated by the state of Florida. We also provide them with great benefits and free education. So I’m going to finish what is obviously kind of a long answer by asking one question: Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes, or not?”

Weeks later, Disney pulled the plug on a move of thousands of its employees to a new complex in Lake Nona, Florida. This seemed to be a follow-up to Iger questioning if Florida wanted Disney to invest more or not, or want Disney to pay more taxes. Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro said at the time, “Given the considerable changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changing business conditions, we have decided not to move forward with construction of the campus.” D’Amaro went on to acknowledge “This was not an easy decision to make, but I believe it is the right one.”

DeSantis Strikes Back

This announcement came just before Governor DeSantis announced his run for President of the United States of America on Twitter Spaces. During the Twitter Spaces, DeSantis again reiterated his newest position on the Disney dispute saying that he was opposed to Disney’s self-governance within the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. He also addressed other members of the Republican Party who have called on him to end the feud with Disney saying he wouldn’t back down. “I think some of these Republicans that are taking Disney’s side, they’re basically showing themselves to be corporatists because these are all corporate goodies, this is not the way that you would run a competitive economy, and the arrangement had really outlived its usefulness but it persisted because Disney was so politically powerful,” DeSantis said.

The appointment of Charbel Barakat seems to confirm that DeSantis is continuing to push forward with his agenda in Florida, particularly for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. As he is now campaigning across the country, he is touting the actions he has taken in Florida as a model for how he would also run the country.

The next step for Barakat is to be confirmed by the Florida Senate, which will most undoubtedly happen with ease. He will then join the board as it continues to try to assert itself in the middle of this sea of unknowns.