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Public money spent on sports teams and stadiums has far outpaced investment in the arts

The city of St. Petersburg once decided it made perfect sense to spend $140 million to build a stadium on the mere hope of luring a baseball team.

Ten years later, Hillsborough County voters rejected a new tax to build roads and schools until a $168 million football stadium was added to the list.

Meanwhile, it took backers nearly two decades to win support for a new Tampa Bay history museum. They got $19.5 million only after promising never to ask for another dime.

Civic leaders across the Tampa Bay area have long hitched their next-great-American city dreams to big-time sports. They've used tax dollars to build stadiums for pro football and baseball teams, and for an arena to house professional hockey in sun-drenched Florida.

Arts and culture have been a tougher sell. Its supporters have had to fight and scrape, then wait for every penny.

"You could not buy what sports does for a community," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who helped efforts to land a pro football franchise and later to keep it here. "It's not just the money. It's a feeling."

Feelings are a little more anxious at the Florida Orchestra, which is struggling to pay its musicians. Just this week, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo shut its doors after 73 years in operation.

Tampa's own Museum of Art currently resides in an old West Tampa social club. Its supporters waged a year's long battle for a new home that is finally under construction on the Hillsborough River downtown. The city contribution: about $27 million.

"I certainly have not done any specific comparison on the amount of money spent on athletic events compared to culture," said Melinda Chavez, executive director of the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts, which promotes the arts as an economic development engine. "But I'm quite certain the amount spent on sports by state and local government would completely dwarf what is spent on arts and culture."

• • •

Sports has long occupied an outsized pedestal in these parts.

In the booming 1920s, Pinellas County established itself as the center of the baseball spring training universe, a distinction it would hold for decades. Baseball players, who weren't paid as well as they are today, routinely hawked lots in subdivisions for side cash.

Legislatures, loath to pass a state sales tax, leaned on proceeds from parimutuel wagering in the lean years that followed.

In the 1970s, Tampa Bay leaped into the sporting world big time, when first Tampa then St. Petersburg built stadiums in an effort to lure teams. St. Petersburg got an expansion baseball team while Tampa got what would become the NFL Buccaneers.

Within a few years, Tampa was hosting the 1984 Super Bowl that saw the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Redskins.

"Getting an NFL franchise put us on the map," said Leonard Levy, a leader in effort to land a team. "Then, with the Super Bowl, that proved we could be a destination for conventions and other things."

The fever took hold.

About a decade later, voters rejected a proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for new schools, fire stations and police cars.

A short time later, they passed the same tax when a stadium was added for the Bucs because the team's new owners hinted they might move the franchise. The $168 million price tag will cost millions more in debt payments.

Over time, Hillsborough County officials approved millions in tax payments for a new hockey arena and concert venue, as well as a state-of-the-art spring training home for baseball's Yankees.

Behold the spoils: A fourth Super Bowl hosted, a Stanley Cup hoisted and a World Series waged last year in what was once the land of practice baseball.

"Often it's sports that puts you on the map as a community," said Cornelia Corbett, who can see both sides of the culture clash. As a chair of the Tampa Museum of Art she led its campaign for a new home, but she and her husband also once owned Tampa's defunct pro soccer team, the Rowdies.

"The peel-off comes with people being here and finding out there's a lot more," she said.

• • •

To be sure, the communities around Tampa Bay boast a number of artistic gems. They include the renowned Salvador Dali museum, which is getting a new home on the St. Petersburg waterfront, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota, its waterfront campus maintained by the state.

St. Petersburg is also landing a new museum at the Arts Center downtown to house the world-famous glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly. The new $35 million museum will sit on Central Avenue, which has developed since the last Super Bowl into an often bustling arts and entertainment district.

And arts backers say they are increasingly getting a more receptive ear from local government when it comes to backing other efforts.

"You know, they are getting it," said Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, speaking of support for the arts from elected officials. "They really are, after many years of bludgeoning.''

Says St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker: "I'm always willing to get on a plane to go somewhere to try to bring a new cultural amenity. Every new piece just makes it that much more likely that someone will come into town for a three-day weekend."

Across the bay, the Tampa Theatre continues to entertain crowds with movie classics preceded by an organ player performing on the Wurlitzer. At Graphicstudio on the University of South Florida campus, visiting artists, from Robert Rauschenberg to James Rosenquist, have honed their crafts.

Meanwhile, the St. Pete Times Forum and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center are two of the most visited venues of their kind in the country. And don't forget the Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, which is showing the latest touring "bodies" exhibit.

"You could come here as a visitor to the Tampa Bay area and spend a week roaming around at cultural activities or the zoo without any difficulty at all," said Tom James, chairman and chief executive officer of Raymond James, the St. Petersburg-based financial services giant that owns the name rights to the Buccaneers' stadium. James, an ardent arts supporter and collector, is president of the Dali Museum board of trustees.

"There's plenty to do here,'' he said.

Staff writers Jeff Harrington and Lennie Bennett and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Public money spent on sports teams and stadiums has far outpaced investment in the arts 01/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 7:28am]
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