This thing hinges on faith, and cash, and the goodness of Greg Neal's word. If it all comes together, Tampa will have what may be the nation's grandest community college. If Neal can deliver, private investors will pour more than $200-million into the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College, making it a world-class sports-medicine destination with a luxury hotel and a culinary institute. Professional athletes will come to see elite orthopedic surgeons. Students will learn from experts in sports nutrition and hotel management. More than 400 jobs will be created. College officials are so impressed by what Neal has told them that they are seriously considering renting his company nearly 50 of their most valuable acres for the next 50 years. But there is cause for doubt.
A St. Petersburg Times investigation of Neal's claims and credentials found nearly 20 statements that were exaggerated, misleading, disputed, or downright false. And public administrators repeated some of those claims in official documents without independently confirming them.
This pattern of overstatement lasted almost three years, apparently undetected by the college executives assigned to gauge Neal's credibility or the outside consulting firm that received nearly $800,000 in public money to help oversee development.
Enticed by the splendor of Neal's vision, college officials granted him an exclusive agreement last year despite having waved off two previous versions of his plan because they were vague and incomplete.
Meanwhile, the college rejected more modest offers from proven developers, including one from the Outback Steakhouse company that featured an up-front payment of $1-million.
And the college's talks with Neal have continued since 2005 despite signs of nagging suspicion from administrators.
"Let's see how the next meeting goes with them," HCC vice president Rob Wolf wrote to a colleague before one meeting with Neal. "If they in fact have the 'big Hitters' lined up as they say, we can continue. ... If it is more smoke and mirrors, I think we need to end this quickly with them."
That was 15 months ago.
The phantom degrees
A few true things about Greg Neal: He is 51 years old, graying at the sideburns, with a preference for immaculate white shirts. He speaks deliberately, measuring every word.
While some of Neal's resume is difficult to verify because it involves classified assignments and companies that no longer exist, two men who identified themselves as his former colleagues said he does have a history of high-tech achievement. One confirmed Neal's assertion that he had managed the development of the first automated retail checkout system, and another said Neal had worked for a defense contractor with the Star Wars program to build a laser-positioning system for intercepting incoming enemy missiles.
But other claims defy corroboration. For example, Neal said on a Web site that he had a bachelor's degree from Boston University. But records show that although he attended for two years, he earned no degree. Neal also said he had an MBA from Babson College, but a Babson spokesman said the college has no record of an MBA for Neal — only a bachelor's degree.
Early in May, the Times asked Neal if he really had an MBA.
"I went to Babson," he said.
And you got an MBA?
"Yes," he said, and then, quickly, "Do you know Babson?"
Neal was asked about his claim to HCC that he had "assisted a Caribbean nation in breaking its electric power monopoly without an interruption of service and a reduction in consumer rates."
"Um, that was the Cayman Islands," he said. "I think probably saying 'break the monopoly' might be a little strong.
"The focus should really be on my partners, and not on me."
He mentioned several names: Dr. Thomas Graham, an elite hand surgeon; Dr. Joe Story, who helps professional athletes get even faster and stronger; Jack Diamond, an attorney in the medical field; and Bing Kearney, a local construction magnate.
Over the next five weeks, the Times tried to contact these partners, without success. In a later meeting, Neal explained why none of them had returned phone calls. He had told them not to.
Neal was asked about a document he had given the college that called ESPN one of "our direct partners."
Was ESPN a direct partner?
"No," he said. "That's an overstatement."
"That is simply not accurate."
About 1 of every 20 adults in Hillsborough County is enrolled in Hillsborough Community College. The college serves nearly 43,000 students, more than Florida State University.
The largest of HCC's five campuses is on N Dale Mabry Highway, six minutes from the airport, three minutes from the interstate, footsteps from Raymond James Stadium and Legends Field. The campus has 43 undeveloped acres. This is where Neal wants to build.
He has what college administrators have sought for nearly a decade: a plan to transform the Dale Mabry campus into a pulsating engine of economic growth. The new curriculum would be suffused with real-world experience. Instead of merely reading textbooks or hearing lectures, students could practice alongside professionals in physical therapy, hotel management and culinary arts without having to leave the grounds.
Neal made a pitch to the college early in 2005. According to HCC president Gwendolyn Stephenson, he said he had "contractual commitments" from several major health care providers, including the Cleveland Clinic. She repeated these claims in a memo to the trustees.
This is how Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil responded when asked this year about Neal's project:
"We had no involvement," she said. "We did receive at one time a proposal from them, but it did not result in any relationship."
Nevertheless, two days after Stephenson wrote the memo, the trustees approved a deal that gave Neal and his company, Keystone Ventures, exclusive negotiating rights with the college for the following 60 days.
On July 15, nearly a month past deadline, Keystone delivered a full-blown proposal. It said the University of South Florida had "pledged that its 680 physicians will utilize the ambulatory surgical and diagnostic facilities."
But Stephen Klasko, dean of the USF medical school, said he does not recall such a pledge. "Mr. Neal did speak with us," he said, "and we said we would gladly look at working with them once they got funding, which I do not believe ever happened."
Neal's proposal said "the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association has requested space for a permanent exhibit area."
But Mike May, an SGMA spokesman, said, "I've spoken to a couple of my associates, and no one seems to know who this Keystone group is."
The proposal said Todd Toriscelli, head athletic trainer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was "committed to the development" of key elements of the project.
No, said Buccaneers spokesman Jeff Kamis. "He's in essence given some friendly advice to these people. ... He's not affiliated with them in any way."
The college finally rejected Keystone's proposal, but not because of unverified claims. Carter, an Atlanta real estate firm that HCC paid $768,000 to help oversee the project, gave five other reasons for sending them away, including unfavorable lease terms and the partners' lack of experience with projects of this kind.
Next came a tense meeting between college officials, Neal, and his attorney, Gordon Schiff.
"I have to wonder what Greg and Gordon expect to accomplish with this attitude," campus president Bob Chunn wrote to a colleague after the meeting. "They must have decided to abandon persuasion by being accommodating and reasonable and resort to persuasion by being belligerent and indignant."
"They get defensive when we ask them questions, express concerns, or attempt to negotiate. ... Anyway, I have to conclude that Keystone will not go quietly."
He was right.
Truth or Consequences
Six months later, when the college put out another call for developers, Neal responded. He had been busy.
"Our development team has taken the lead role in creating another type of economic engine for the State of New Mexico," he wrote. "The site represents approximately 7,500 acres, situated on both sides of Interstate 25, including a Municipal Airport. We have the support of the Governor's Office, the State Land Office, the Bureau of Land Management and members of Congress in three states. The New Mexico project will answer many of your questions about our expertise, resources and ability to deliver."
He was describing the Hot Springs Motorplex, in the high desert town of Truth or Consequences. The project would bring a racetrack, golf course, industrial park, convention center and several housing subdivisions together on a parcel about 12 miles square. The town's population is about 7,000. The motorplex could more than triple it.
Two and a half years after Neal used the motorplex as an example of his ability to deliver, nothing has been built. A public hearing on his master plan is scheduled for Monday.
Neal got the land for the motorplex in a complicated trade involving the New Mexico State Land Office. Part of what helped him close the deal was a project overview that contained these impressive claims:
1. "HSMD (Hot Springs Motorplex Development) has proposed to NASCAR that it would be well-served to have a logistics and distribution center in the West, to support the existing races and planned expansion of the sport beyond its historic boundaries of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. They are interested ..."
They are not, said Ramsey Poston, a NASCAR spokesman. He said there was a meeting, but NASCAR gave no indication of interest.
2. "Roush Racing and industries has been recruited intentionally to be an anchor for this development after an expression of interest in operating a Signature Racing School and the opportunity to design and architect the track facilities, garages, shops, and other supporting infrastructure."
But Maureen C. Crowley, a spokeswoman for Roush, said, "While we did speak with the developer for this project approximately a year ago, we do not currently have any plans to expand our activities to New Mexico."
It seems assistant land commissioner Kristin Haase didn't know that. On April 17, she put out a press release on the land swap. It included this passage:
"The developer has also proposed to NASCAR that it would be well-served to have a logistics and distribution center in the West, to support existing races and planned expansion of the sport beyond its historical boundaries of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Further, Roush Racing and Industries has expressed interest in operating a signature racing school and designing track facilities, garages, shops and supporting infrastructure."
Of the five firms to submit plans for developing the Dale Mabry campus in 2006, Keystone came in fourth.
Evaluators gave each firm a score based on such criteria as business terms and track record. A restaurant proposal from Cheeseburger in Paradise was first, with a score of 80.1. Steak N Shake came in second with 67.1. A hotel from a George Steinbrenner company was third with 65.5. Keystone got 47.3.
"Business terms very vague," college facilities director David Cabeceiras wrote of Keystone's proposal.
"No specifics," Wolf wrote.
"Little evidence of its background or business success," Chunn wrote.
But officials dismissed the three top scorers when it became clear they didn't share the college's vision for mixing commerce and academics. And in May 2007, just after the college vice president's e-mail about smoke and mirrors, Neal met with college officials and reignited their interest.
At a board workshop in August, trustee Thomas Huggins III "expressed his concern regarding whether Keystone Ventures has the resources to do a public/private partnership of this type," the minutes said. But the board agreed to move ahead.
In September, Chunn e-mailed colleagues with a word of caution. "In general," he wrote, "we are inviting a herd of 800-pound gorillas to live on the Dale Mabry campus for decades, and those gorillas will push us aside, eat all the bananas and run the jungle if we're not smart up-front."
Neal told college officials that month he had met with Tampa Bay Lightning officials and that the team wanted space in the complex for hockey practice and corporate offices. In November, he told them he had been "working intensively" with John Zvijac, team doctor for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that Zvijac would help plan the project.
Nine days later, the trustees voted unanimously to give Keystone another exclusive negotiating deal. That gave Neal 90 days to deliver a master development agreement. The deadline passed. The college extended the deadline. The extension expired. The college extended the extension. That extension expired July 31. On Tuesday, the trustees are expected to extend it again. Both sides are still working on the lease agreement.
Regarding Neal's meeting with the Lightning, team spokesman Bill Wickett confirmed that it happened. But he says the officials told Neal they were happy with their lease at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon and had no plans to move.
And Buccaneers spokesman Jeff Kamis said Neal had falsely used Zvijac's name: "He's probably spoken to the guy maybe once or twice."
Three months ago, in their tower on Davis Islands, four college executives gathered to answer a reporter's questions about the deal with Keystone.
"We have agreed to nothing," said Stephenson, the president.
"We're very, very concerned about due diligence," said Wolf, her second-in-command. "We're very, very concerned about drilling down."
"We did our research," Stephenson said.
To the south, beyond the tall windows, smokestacks rose against the blue horizon.
"We're still in the process of vetting these prospects," said Chunn, the Dale Mabry campus president. "There's a great deal of work to be done."
Wolf: "It's something that we're going to look at with a microscope."
Stephenson: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
A spirited competition
Neal's acquaintances say he is a man of uncommon energy and towering goals. Not to mention perseverance: He has spent more than three years and, he says, more than $300,000 of his own money on his dream of turning a neighborhood known for its strip clubs into a place where young people come to build careers.
His problem is not unusual for developers. To get a land lease you need credible partners. To get partners you need land.
Something has to come first.
On May 7, at a workshop for the college trustees, seven of Neal's partners appeared in the flesh. They included Dr. Story, Dr. Graham and Mr. Diamond, the minutes said. No smoke, no mirrors. Wolf's proverbial big hitters had materialized.
With their backing, the project does not seem impossible.
Neal's negotiator on the deal with the college was Jim Reed, who resigned from the Florida Bar in 2001 after self-reporting the unauthorized use of client trust funds. In July, after a Times inquiry, a college spokeswoman said Reed was no longer part of the negotiations.
Keystone's budget for the project is $225-million. Neal says he has investors but will not name names.
College officials have said obtaining adjacent land would help to accommodate the development's sprawling footprint. But a state juvenile-detention center is on that land now, and a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice said the agency has no plans to relocate it.
Neal was recently asked about his claim that someone who had been the NFL's lead stadium consultant was on his management team in 2006.
Who was the consultant?
"That is a gentleman from Cincinnati who's no longer working with us," he said.
"Yeah, I can give it to you. Not off the top of my head. I know he's not in my phone."
When the consultant's credentials that had been printed in Neal's proposal were plugged into Google, they came back to Rick Horrow, a venerated sports-business expert who lives near West Palm Beach, not in Cincinnati. A long list of accomplishments had been copied nearly verbatim from Horrow's Web site. A spokeswoman for Horrow would not confirm or deny that Horrow had been on Keystone's team, but she did say Neal never had permission to copy Horrow's credentials to promote the project.
Neal was asked about another thing he told the college in 2005: that "the three major Athletic Shoe and Apparel Manufacturers ... (are) Currently engaged in a spirited competition for the naming and funding rights for the Performance Science Center."
Were they really?
"No, that one wasn't true," he said. "Maybe I was spirited."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3416.