TAMPA — A majority of Hillsborough County commissioners say they are willing to consider freeing up future tourist tax dollars to pay for renovations of the St. Pete Times Forum.
Their statements came in response to revelations that the new Tampa Bay Lightning ownership group is planning a significant makeover of the venue and wants to tap additional public dollars for reimbursement.
The five commissioners who could be reached for comment Thursday noted the importance of the Times Forum as a tourist and entertainment draw. As a publicly owned venue, it needs to be kept in good shape, they said.
And a common theme among them was noting that the hockey team, whose parent company leases and runs the building, is willing to front the money without making any demands.
"They want a mature conversation. I think that's great," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.
County officials this week confirmed they've been briefed by team officials on plans for significant modifications. They include seat replacement, new heating and air-conditioning systems, a paint job and construction of an upper-level party deck to offer more food and drink vendors.
In all, the team anticipates spending $40 million for what was described as a mix of overdue maintenance and an effort to improve the fan experience.
Commissioners five years ago approved setting aside $35 million for renovations. The team's former owner agreed to do the work and then apply for reimbursements through 2021. So far, the team has gotten $11 million in reimbursements.
The St. Petersburg Times, which owns the venue's naming rights, reported Thursday that the ownership group, Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, wants to expand the agreement. Under terms discussed so far, the team would be eligible for future annual reimbursements of $2.5 million through 2027, expanding the potential value of the rebate program to $48.5 million.
Five of the seven commissioners, who would have to approve the deal, said Thursday they're willing to entertain the idea. Some of them noted that tourist taxes, which are paid by hotel guests, seem to be an appropriate source. Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Les Miller could not be reached for comment.
Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association, said his group supports the Lightning. Still, he said he wants to hear what effect a deal could have on funding to market the county as a visitor destination.
Commissioners said they have heard nothing to suggest that the deal is being proposed to enhance the venue before the 2012 Republican National Convention. Ken Jones, president of the convention host committee, said the party has done nothing to encourage renovations.
"At the time that we bid, the RNC site selection commission saw the Times Forum in its then condition and awarded the bid based on what they saw," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected].com.