TAMPA — The fear of another poor fair season has driven the Florida State Fair officials to study the possibility of large-scale development at the fairgrounds near Tampa.
The Fair Authority board agreed Thursday to hire a consultant to study all the important buildings, fields, roads, facilities and events that the Florida State Fair needs to stay viable.
But there's also another motive: Doing so will identify the open areas at the publicly owned, 330-acre plot along Interstate 4 east of Tampa. That means developers can pitch projects such as hotels, sports facilities, and theme parks. The site has also been discussed as the possible home of a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium.
An analysis of the site could end up as addition though subtraction. It should identify large fields used for little more than parking that can be replaced by garages so large tracts could be leased for development. A development group led by former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco has already proposed filling 200 acres with upscale hotels, shops, restaurants, a small amusement park and a stadium that could be used for soccer or baseball.
The Fair Authority created a similar partnership six years ago when the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre was built. Leased by Live Nation, the concert venue and annual state fair ticket sales supply most of the Authority's budget.
But that took a major hit this winter, when storms and cold weather cut fair attendance by 24 percent.
The authority expects to lose about $1.4 million this year but expects to maintain about $3.4 million in reserves. Worried that one more bad year could eat into those savings, board members say the fairgrounds needs to add more commercial business partnerships.
"I don't think there's any disagreement that we shouldn't do it," board member Jack Butcher said. "The disagreement is how and when."
Knoxville, Tenn., consultant Charlie Smith of the global design firm Populous will be paid about $7,500 for his 30-day site study. It could prompt board members to begin looking for development bids as early as July.
"This could be a real showcase for the community," Greco said, calling the site the potential "next Disney."
The possibility of a baseball stadium wasn't mentioned Thursday, but Greco said the site makes a lot of sense for such a big project because of the space and common ownership.
An independent commission on a future Tampa Bay Rays stadium has also indicated the location might make sense.
Greco's group, which includes Republic Land Development of Fairfax, Va., has been laying groundwork for development plans for more than a year, though Greco said he welcomes other competitors.
They first planted the seed for development in early 2009 by visiting Tallahassee and presented the plan to state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who sits on the authority board and appoints most of its members.
"He's in charge," Greco said, "and I thought it'd be very disrespectful talking to neighbors and this and that and going through records and having him go, 'What's this about?' "
During that conversation, Bronson stressed that land for annual and traditional festivals and expos needs to be preserved.
"The continuity of this fair needs to be maintained," Bronson said Thursday, recalling the advice he gave the group, who incorporated his input.
Bronson also raised concerns about traffic on Orient Road and the impact development could have on neighbors.
But he said there's no better time to think about private revenue sources. The recession has taken a toll on the state and the oil spill's economic impacts are coming, he said.
"We can't count on much help from pretty much anywhere," he said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.