Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Business

Apartments and town homes planned at old Tampa Jai-Alai fronton site

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

     
Comments
St. Pete Pier public arts committee to meet with finalists, make decision

St. Pete Pier public arts committee to meet with finalists, make decision

ST. PETERSBURG — The pier public arts committee is expected to decide today which artist or artists will have their work showcased in the new 26-acre Pier District. The committee, which selected six finalists with the help of consultant Ann Wykell, w...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Girls hockey could replace boys lacrosse on Pasco tourism calendar

Girls hockey could replace boys lacrosse on Pasco tourism calendar

NEW PORT RICHEY – Hockey pucks could replace lacrosse balls as the required sports equipment for the holiday tourism season in Wesley Chapel.The Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival, founded by Canadian hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser, is seek...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Disney World hiring 3,500, offers signing bonuses up to $5,000

Disney World hiring 3,500, offers signing bonuses up to $5,000

ORLANDO — In an ever-tightening job market, Disney World is doubling its hiring bonuses for some summer jobs, even for unskilled or part-time positions — as it seeks to hire for 3,500 positions.A housekeeper hired this year at Disney World’s resorts ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
So far, Pasco’s tourism base: Floridians, Canadians

So far, Pasco’s tourism base: Floridians, Canadians

NEW PORT RICHEY – The typical tourist in Pasco County this year most likely is a Floridian.But there are lots of Canadians here as well. Nearly 80 percent drove, rather than flew, to the region. Forty percent stayed in hotels, but more than a quarter...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Amazon will now deliver to certain cars across Tampa Bay

Amazon will now deliver to certain cars across Tampa Bay

SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon latest perk ... free delivery to your car. The Seattle company said Tuesday that it has begun delivering packages in 37 cities — including Tampa and St. Petersburg — to Prime members who own newer General Motors or Volvo vehicl...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Hernando Chamber boosts small business with videos

Hernando Chamber boosts small business with videos

SPRING HILL — Jaden Trotter claims he was basically shy. When a new sandwich shop opened a year and a half ago, he applied for work as a delivery driver, a job not requiring a lot of people skills.But Ryan Noruzi, owner of the local Jimmy Johns franc...
Published: 04/24/18
Armed Forces History Museum collection has a new home, but new owner is a mystery

Armed Forces History Museum collection has a new home, but new owner is a mystery

LARGO — The contents of the Armed Forces History Museum have been sold, but no one is ready to talk about the future of the collection of military memorabilia.A collector named John Piazza used his personal collection to start the public museum, whic...
Published: 04/24/18
Big visitor calls at Port Tampa Bay

Big visitor calls at Port Tampa Bay

TAMPA — The 750-foot-long Ireland, one of the biggest cargo vessels ever to call at Port Tampa Bay, arrived Sunday.The Ireland is on its inaugural voyage, having left a shipyard in China for a stop in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to pick up 64,865 shor...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Work starting on JW Marriott, but Water Street Tampa expects to have 10 buildings under way within a year

Work starting on JW Marriott, but Water Street Tampa expects to have 10 buildings under way within a year

TAMPA — Water Street Tampa marks the start of construction Tuesday on its first building, the posh JW Marriott hotel, but there’s a lot more to come.And soon.Within a year, developers said Monday, construction should be underway on 10 — 10! — of Wate...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Sears in Clearwater’s Countryside Mall to close in mid-July

Sears in Clearwater’s Countryside Mall to close in mid-July

CLEARWATER — The Westfield Countryside Mall Sears will close in mid-July as part of Sears Holdings’ latest store cuts, bringing the number of shuttering Kmarts and Sears to nearly 200.The store’s liquidation sale will begin on Friday, according to Se...
Published: 04/23/18