TAMPA — Exotic and even rakish in its charms, the Tampa Jai Alai fronton is long gone, closed and torn down nearly 20 years ago.
But soon part of the storied South Tampa property could be reborn with a new purpose and a new Mediterranean-inspired name.
John Lum of List Developers is looking to build 140 townhomes and 160 apartments on the back 13 acres of the old jai alai site, behind the Home Depot and Sam’s Club already on the front part of the property.
First, however, the place needs some cleanup. That’s because even before it was home of jai alai in Tampa, it was a city landfill, and environmental studies have found construction debris and household refuse 13 to 15 feet below ground.
So on Thursday, the Tampa City Council voted to declare the area a brownfield site, which gives Lum access to state regulatory and financial incentives to encourage voluntary cleanup and redevelopment of abandoned properties.
The remediation of the site at 5145 S Dale Mabry Highway already is about 90 percent complete, Lum said, and he’s been working with city permitting officials on plans for the project.
"We’re going to start vertical construction in January," he said. The project is expected to take 12 to 13 months to build.
Lum is partnering with former Tampa Bay Storm owner Bob Gries on the project, to be called The Cortona, after the rural village featured in the Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun. All 300 units will be for rent, Lum said, with rents in the $1.50 to $1.60 per square foot range — less than the $2 to $2.30 per square foot being charged downtown, in Hyde Park and on Harbour Island.
And, he said, while it’s common for apartment developers to built and then sell their projects to real estate investment trusts or hedge funds, that’s not the plan with the Cortona. Lum said the ownership will remain local, and that he and Gries plan to engage WRH Realty Services of St. Petersburg to manage the Cortona.
Lum has been working on the project for about three years. That’s entailed digging, literally, into the history of the site.
"You should see the amazing old glass bottles we found there," he said.
The property was a dump into the 1950s, which is not so long ago considering that the fronton opened there in 1953.
The father of jai alai in Tampa was Frank Kraemer. After encountering the sport when he was head of Bethlehem Steel’s plants in pre-Castro Cuba, Kraemer tried to build a fronton in Miami after returning to the United States. But a priest and a rabbi both there both opposed the idea.
Of course, Miami had jai alai, too, but it wasn’t always welcome. As early as the 1920s, former populist presidential candidate and moral crusader William Jennings Bryan condemned the game as immoral and unhealthy for tourism.
"Only a small percentage of Miami’s winter guests are gamblers," he said, "and it would be far more profitable to cater to the virtuous rather than to the vicious."
So Kraemer turned toward Tampa.
On opening night, Tampa’s fronton on S Dale Mabry Highway had no heat, only two 50-gallon barrels filled with hot charcoal. Heat rising from the barrels was fanned over chilly spectators.
As it established itself, however, the sport gained a following in the years before the city got professional sports or, for that matter, commercial bingo or cable television or video rental stores. Games were preceded by a spirited processional march, heavy on the trumpets and tambourines, and a salute to the audience by the players’ cestas, the banana-shaped wicker baskets used to throw and catch the rock-hard pelota. The fronton also was a concert venue that hosted, over the years, Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley and the Wailers, the B-52s, Heart, Cheap Trick, the Pretenders and more.
But while the Basque phrase jai alai means "merry festival" in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, the good times did not last in Tampa.
As the years went on, leisure time options multiplied. There was a game-fixing scandal in the late 1970s. The Florida Lottery was born in 1987. The following year, players went on strike and stayed out for two years.
By the late 1990s, both attendance and the handle — the amount wagered — had dropped by nearly half from the decade before. At the end of the 45th season of play, the fronton closed and was demolished. There’s been some talk of trying to revive the sport somewhere else in Tampa since then. And an apartment project for the site was proposed in 1998, but was never built.
With the proximity of MacDill Air Force Base, the construction of the Selmon Expressway’s elevated lanes linking to the Gandy Bridge and the A’s and B’s Robinson High School has been earning from the state, Lum said now’s a good time to build south of Gandy Boulevard. And it’s fascinating to work with a site with a rich history behind it.
"It’s been fun for me as a developer," said Lum, the incoming president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. "I researched a lot into what was there before. ... It’s a big part of my life now."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times