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Plan would remake Florida State Fairgrounds east of Tampa

TAMPA — Is there room, in the Gateway to Tampa Bay, for the horse trailers to turn around?

The question, both logistical and philosophical, is now before the Florida State Fair Authority, which heard a pitch Wednesday for a radical redevelopment of the fairgrounds east of Tampa.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco led a parade of blue-chip consultants who laid out plans for hotels and restaurants, shopping and a sports complex on about half the fairgrounds' 346 acres at U.S. 301 and Interstate 4.

Consultants say the land, mostly grassy lots and gravel paths, is under-utilized while the authority lacks the money for improvements.

"This is a wonderful piece of land," said Greco, part of a group led by Republic Land Development of Fairfax, Va. "You have got a gold mine here if it's done correctly."

Absent was any mention of a baseball stadium, which had been raised as the Tampa Bay Rays ponder their future.

Republic's design includes a soccer complex, and there was talk of golf, tennis and lacrosse. However, the development group said their design is just a starting point, and fair officials could ask for changes.

The presentation followed a glum discussion of the fairground's financial picture. Attendance at the February fair was down by 110,000 compared to last year, and total income was down by $1.2 million.

Fair officials generally blamed this year's cold and rainy weather. But, at committee meetings throughout the day, they also acknowledged it is hard to draw visitors from outside Hillsborough County.

The plan calls for Republic to lease land from the Fair Authority. Lease payments would be based on the businesses' revenues.

The existing midway, equestrian facilities, Cracker Country and exposition hall would remain, and the Fair Authority could use lease income to improve them. The Ford Amphitheatre would also remain.

Most of the new construction — hotels of various sizes, a golf school, a soccer tournament field and parking garages — would be on the outer edges. Some of the development would complement the nearby Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and Republic's consultants said they are already having conversations with the tribe about a collaboration.

In addition to Greco, the group includes the WilsonMiller land planning firm; the Plasencia hotel investment group and Walker Brands, a marketing and branding specialist whose clients have included Disney.

Some of the ideas are pegged to future events, such as a transportation system that includes connections to regional light rail.

But even without rail, the network of highways that lead to the site make it a logical entrance point to the Tampa Bay area. Mark Cooney, president of The Land Sharks real estate consulting firm, suggested fountains, or "extreme landscaping," along the roadside.

The redevelopment would create more than 13,500 construction-related jobs and create or support 6,000 permanent jobs, consultants said.

But fair board members were not completely sold.

"I'm concerned as to where all the parking will be," said Charles Bronson, Florida's agriculture commissioner. "The horse trailers that are brought in during the fair take up an awful lot of space."

Others wondered if redevelopment was appropriate.

"Our charter says we're here for agriculture," said member William Bowman. "It doesn't say anything about a shopping center."

Nearby homeowners urged the board to consider traffic, drainage and neighborhood input. A spokesman for the NAACP asked that any redevelopment use minority contractors.

No vote was taken, and the matter will be referred to executive director Charles Pesano, who was not at the meeting. The board meets next on June 10, although a long-range planning committee might consider the presentation earlier.

And before any deal can be struck, the authority will need to open the process to other bids.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602.

Plan would remake Florida State Fairgrounds east of Tampa 04/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 12:06am]
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