TAMPA — With representatives of two potential bidders sitting in the audience, the Florida State Fair Authority's board Friday voted to seek ideas for development projects at the 331-acre fairgrounds.
The fair authority is looking for at least $2 million a year from the developer (or developers) it chooses but is trying to keep its options as open as possible.
Not negotiable: The fair must go on.
Fair officials say any development proposals must be compatible with the mission and operations of the state fair, held east of Tampa every February. Before approving the invitation unanimously, the board spent the largest part of its discussion focused on making that requirement clear and easy to enforce.
"Let's get this one right," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who sits on the fair authority's board. "This is the biggest decision this fair's made in a long time, probably since they moved from downtown."
The fair's land presents an attractive development opportunity because of its size and location at Interstate 4 and U.S. 301. In responding to the fair authority's invitation, developers can propose projects for:
• 35 acres on the west side of the fairgrounds.
• All of the fairgrounds except the core fair area, the Cracker Country Florida history museum and the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
• All of the fairgrounds except Cracker Country and the amphitheater.
The invitation to participate goes out Monday. Responses will be due Jan. 3. The board could identify one or more developers it wants to negotiate with in late January. Coming up with a development agreement could last an estimated three to six months beyond that.
With the midway going, the fair itself uses 35 to 50 acres. The amphitheater takes up 17 acres and uses more for parking.
The fair authority is not talking about selling its land. Rather, it is looking for income in the form of a lease, various forms of rent, reductions in its operating and maintenance expenses and money for capital improvements.
The fair authority has an annual operating budget of about $18 million and ended its last fiscal year with net income of approximately $850,000. But it also spends $1.5 million to $2 million a year on capital improvements, so the development income could allow it to accelerate some of those projects.
If a developer wants to build something on the site of the fair — or wants to use land now dedicated to parking — it would have to plan to relocate and replace that part of the fair or its parking elsewhere on the fairgrounds, officials say.
As the authority board discussed the idea, members of two potential development teams looked on.
"We've been asking that the board do this for several years," said Tampa land use attorney David Mechanik, who is working with Republic Land Development of Virginia.
In 2010, Republic explored building hotels, restaurants, shops and a sports complex on about half the fairgrounds. Republic's initial concept included a possible soccer stadium, but that — plus the fact that the ABC Coalition identified the fairgrounds as a potential site for a Tampa Bay Rays stadium — did little to stop a lot of baseball-focused speculation.
Mechanik said his understanding is that his client wants to participate and could be looking at a similar proposal with retail, hotels and enhanced meeting facilities.
Former Associated Industries of Florida CEO Barney Bishop is working with a second group, Sovereign Investments, which has offered to build a privately financed exhibition hall and multilevel parking garage on the west portion of the fairgrounds.
The proposed 225,000-square-foot exhibition hall could be used for rodeos, truck pulls, horse shows and similar events. Future phases of development envision administrative and educational uses and a hotel.
But Bishop said the authority's invitation is flawed in a number of ways. He said it's geared toward projects like hotels, offices, stores and industry — but not agricultural uses in line with the fair's rural roots.
Also, he said, requiring income of at least $2 million per year tilts the playing field toward developers who want to use the whole fairgrounds and away from those, like Sovereign, who want to use only part.
"If you built a big shopping center, you'll probably get $2 million," he said, "but what's that got to do with agriculture?"
Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.