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Lightning seeking tax money for St. Pete Times Forum renovations

The county-owned Times Forum was built in 1996 for the Lightning. In 2002, the St. Petersburg Times bought the naming rights.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2010)

The county-owned Times Forum was built in 1996 for the Lightning. In 2002, the St. Petersburg Times bought the naming rights.

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning plans to announce roughly $40 million in renovations to the St. Pete Times Forum that the team hopes will significantly improve the hockey game and concert-going experience.

Documents obtained from Hillsborough County indicate that the team's new owners want to get reimbursed for much of the work with tourist taxes.

Among the changes being discussed: new seating, an overhauled ventilation system, a new interior color scheme and an upper-level concession area.

The team had planned to reveal details of the renovations today but postponed the announcement after two police officers were killed in St. Petersburg earlier this week.

The plan is expected to underscore a renewed commitment to the area since a new ownership group led by hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik took over early last year. A team spokesman on Wednesday deferred comment until the official announcement.

"With Mr. Vinik preparing to make such a meaningful commitment to improving the county-owned arena, we appreciate the county's willingness to work with us to find ways to protect and preserve that investment over the long term for the arena patrons and the economic good of our community," said Bill Wickett, spokesman for Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, which owns the team and runs the arena.

Three top county officials who have been briefed by TBSE confirmed some of the broad ideas of what they have been told is in store. The three, Administrator Mike Merrill, Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tim Simon, director of finance for the clerk's office, have been talking with Lightning officials since late last year.

Their shared account of the renovations planned for this summer include the following:

• Replacing all of the seats within the arena with new blue ones to match the team's new colors. The Times Forum's faulty heating and ventilation system allows moisture to build up, which has caused the seats' metal supports to rust.

• Replacing some or all of the existing heating, air conditioning and ventilation system to address those moisture issues.

• Repainting the walls, resurfacing concourse floors and adding an old-fashioned pipe organ.

• Adding a central food and beverage, party-deck-type area on the upper level in an area that is largely unused. The party area would provide new vending options in the upper, or terrace, level. Team officials hope that will ease congestion on lower concourses that they have long said are too narrow.

Simon said that during a tour of the arena late last year to highlight proposed modifications, he put the team's renovation cost at about $35 million. Team officials told him the figure would probably be slightly higher, he said.

The county-owned Times Forum was built in 1996 for the Lightning. The St. Petersburg Times bought the naming rights in 2002.

An e-mail to Simon from TBSE chief financial officer Martha Fuller earlier this week, obtained by the Times, indicates that the team has asked for public assistance with the renovations.

In 2006, the county pledged $35 million in tourist-tax money for renovations to the Times Forum. The team has used only about one-quarter of that.

That deal called for the team to pay for renovations and then seek reimbursement. It was eligible for $7 million in repayment the first year, and $2 million annually through 2021 after that.

Under the tentative scenario discussed by the team and the county, the deal could get extended through 2027, with annual repayments increasing to $2.5 million in 2015. That could increase the 2006 pledge of $35 million from the county to up to $48.5 million.

Simon and Merrill emphasized that any reimbursement would be for work that maintains or improves the arena's condition and extends its life.

The prior agreement required the team to repay a portion of the tourist-tax money if it stops playing at the Times Forum in the near term, and such a provision probably would be continued. Because tourist-tax receipts can be unpredictable, the county probably will want a provision that no money is owed to the team if those taxes fail to bring in enough money.

Merrill said that since the county owns the building and the team is planning to pay for a substantial part of the renovations, a new agreement could make sense. And with the Republican National Convention scheduled for 2012, it's important the arena showcases the community well.

Still, he said, it does not represent a back-door public contribution to the convention.

"This stuff needs to be done anyway to ensure that (the) facility can continue to attract concerts and other events," Merrill said.

Hagan noted that the team was planning to announce the renovations before any deal has been reached on subsidies.

In the past, he noted, team owners have hinted they could leave Tampa if not given greater public financial support.

"It's a remarkable difference in tone, attitude and commitment to Tampa Bay," Hagan said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

$40 million in renovations planned

The changes being discussed for the St. Pete Times Forum include the following:

. Replacing seats to match the team's new colors.

. Replacing some or all of the existing heating, air conditioning and ventilation system to address moisture issues.

. Repainting the walls, resurfacing concourse floors and adding an old-fashioned pipe organ.

. Adding a central food and beverage, party-deck-type area on the upper level in an area that is largely unused. The party area would provide new vending options in the upper, or terrace, level.

Lightning seeking tax money for St. Pete Times Forum renovations 01/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 7:46am]
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