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Amphitheater property tax dispute remains unresolved

TAMPA — Should a concert venue, operated by a private entity on public land, pay taxes?

That's the center of a six-year legal battle between the Florida State Fair Authority and the Hillsborough County property appraiser.

Since 2004, when the venue now called the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre opened on the fairgrounds east of Tampa, the site's tenant has paid more than $800,000 in property taxes.

The fair authority is trying to recoup that money and eliminate the taxes in the future. But the property appraiser and a judge, so far, say not so fast.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Martha Cook has already ruled against granting the fair authority an overall tax immunity. On Thursday, she listened to arguments from both sides following a motion by the property appraiser to rule against a tax exemption for the venue's site.

Will Shepherd, a property appraiser attorney, said the site doesn't pass an immunity test set by the Florida Supreme Court.

"The courts have pretty much laid out the law at this point, and to us it's pretty obvious that that's a taxable property," he said after the hearing. "They should pay their taxes like everybody else."

Live Nation operates the venue, formally known as the Ford Amphitheatre. It took on the moniker of 1-800-Ask-Gary, a lawyer and doctor referral service, in June.

Although the rest of the fairgrounds is tax-exempt, the amphitheater shouldn't be, Shepherd said, because it doesn't have a governmental function.

"Ozzy Osbourne, Ozzfest doesn't serve a government purpose," he said.

Fair authority attorney Gordon Schiff asked the judge to consider an admission by the Florida Department of Revenue from a separate lawsuit that his client "enjoys sovereign immunity" from property taxes.

Schiff declined to elaborate on the authority's stance afterward. An authority official wouldn't comment on the lawsuit.

Cook ended the hearing without a ruling. She gave attorneys five days to submit additional material for her review.

The court's decision could affect development on the fairgrounds' 330 acres, which has been mentioned as a stadium location for the Tampa Bay Rays.

A group of developers, led by former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, recently proposed adding hotels, shops, restaurants and a sports complex to the land.

The ABC Coalition included the fairgrounds in its study of potential baseball stadium sites for the Rays. However, the business group says three other spots are more centrally located.

Regardless of what may be built at the fairgrounds, Shepherd said relieving the amphitheater of property taxes could have a spiral effect.

"That could quite likely result in the non-taxability of all those other private activities," he said.

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

Amphitheater property tax dispute remains unresolved 07/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 11:25pm]
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