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Taxpayers chipping in for Tampa Bay Buccaneers' luxury suite renovations

A county official wants to scrutinize suite and other changes, which a stadium official says are key to keeping NFL quality.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2009)

A county official wants to scrutinize suite and other changes, which a stadium official says are key to keeping NFL quality.

TAMPA — Almost half of the $7.8 million in public money going toward renovating Raymond James Stadium next year will be spent in places few Bucs fans can enjoy: the luxury suites.

The money, most of which comes from tourist taxes, will pay for new carpeting ($597,200), furnishings ($2.3 million), ice makers ($225,940) and refrigerators ($225,940) in the 195 suites.

But the revenue generated by those suites? By contract, that goes right back to the Bucs owners, the Glazer family.

The Tampa Sports Authority, the public agency that manages the stadium, said it is obligated to keep the suites up to standard. That means replacing worn carpet, for instance, and broken ice makers.

"This was one of the many concessions we have to the Bucs," said authority board member Tony Muniz. "I ensure you they will enforce it."

Hillsborough County and Tampa are on the hook for upkeep. But some county commissioners are questioning the spending, including nearly $7.7 million proposed over two years to replace the scoreboard.

"In the grand scheme of things, carpets in luxury suites and scoreboards are not the highest priorities," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "That will be something I'll be taking a hard look at."

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said he may direct someone from his staff to visit the stadium and provide an opinion about whether the renovations are needed.

The suite improvements were included in the 30-year capital plan that the Bucs and the sports authority developed when Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998, said Eric Hart, the sports authority's executive director.

Officials have done some of the less-expensive items over the years — roof repairs and electrical work, for instance — out of the roughly $2 million they get from the county each year, he said. But many of the big-ticket expenses are coming due now.

Over the next two years, the agency projects spending nearly $18.7 million in maintenance and replacement work.

That includes nearly $1.2 million on stadium seats and $1 million on the sound system. By far, the biggest item will be $7.7 million to replace the scoreboard with a high-definition version.

Hart said the original plan called for replacing the scoreboard after 10 years, a point that passed three years ago. Muniz said the board has dated technology that makes it expensive and difficult to locate parts. "Even though the number is scary, it's something we have to do to keep the stadium to NFL quality," said Muniz.

Because the sports authority spends more money than it takes in, operating shortfalls must be covered by taxpayers. Hillsborough County assumes two-thirds of the losses and the city of Tampa takes on the rest.

The tourist money was initially earmarked in 2006 at the urging of then-commissioner, now state Sen. Jim Norman as part of a package of set-asides for upkeep of county sports buildings.

Now, the fourth of five cents charged for every dollar a person spends on a hotel room in Hillsborough can be used for only a few things: debt payments for renovations on an existing professional sports venue, repairs to a convention center or marketing that promotes tourism.

The topic came up briefly at a Hillsborough County Commission budget workshop Wednesday. Commissioner Victor Crist said he had a hard time supporting millions of dollars in spending at the stadium when the state and county are cutting back on programs for poor children.

"It's going to be hard to look at these kids and say, 'There's nothing for you,' " Crist said.

Commissioner Ken Hagan noted that the stadium money will come from tourist taxes. While he said he shared Crist's sympathies, the tourist tax dollars can't be used to pay for such things as after-school programs.

But some residents wondered whether the tourist taxes could be better spent, especially when it came to the suites.

"People who want to have those luxurious upgrades ought to pay for it," said Karen Jaroch, a conservative activist and chairwoman of the Tampa 912 project.

Hart, the authority executive director, defended the spending not only as a contractual obligation with the Bucs but also as modest upkeep.

"We're not saying we're going to gut the suites and re-do them. We're not going out and putting gold-plated seats in the suites."

Asked about the need for suite improvements, a Bucs spokesman released a statement that did not specifically address it.

"The improvements to the stadium are designed to maintain and enhance the fans' experience at every event at Raymond James Stadium, while also maintaining the venue as a desired destination for future events," Jonathan Grella, director of public relations, said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Taxpayers chipping in for Tampa Bay Buccaneers' luxury suite renovations 06/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 9:49am]
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