Rays stadium talk is reminiscent of fight over Lightning arena site

The professional sports team was looking to leave its St. Petersburg home for a new home it said was vital to its future.

The result: Intense competition between governments and developers on both sides of Tampa Bay. Ultimatums and secret arrangements. A broken deal and anteing of tax money.

Pinellas County officials seemed to have more leverage, since they housed the team. But Tampa offered better demographics and corporations ready to buy luxury suites.

This isn't the Rays. This is the Tampa Bay Lightning — 17 years ago when the hockey franchise announced it would leave St. Petersburg for a new home that eventually became the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

Now that the Rays have said they want to consider sites on both sides of the bay for a new home, the baseball team is calling for regional cooperation. But the announcement has stirred old — and sometimes painful — memories of that earlier contest.

"Here we go again," says former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. "Every 10 years we go through a battle."

Many of the people involved then have retired or moved on. But they say there are lessons that apply today from their arduous chase for a hockey arena.

• ••

There are differences between then and now. St. Petersburg has a contract requiring the Rays to remain at Tropicana Field until 2027. St. Petersburg has threatened to sue the Rays or anyone who talks to them about a new stadium location before then.

But there are similarities, too. Back then, the NHL expansion franchise had just moved into the ThunderDome, its temporary home, after a first season marked by poor attendance at Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The ThunderDome is now Tropicana Field.

Although the Lightning franchise had been awarded to Tampa, St. Petersburg had written into the ThunderDome lease that the Lightning had to consider the city as a permanent home, too, offering the team $500,000 to stay.

The competition for a permanent new arena narrowed to three sites: Two in Tampa and one in St. Petersburg — not unlike the independent ABC Coalition recommendation for a new Rays stadium now.

• • •

The fight over the future arena broke open when a Tampa development group repeatedly missed deadlines on a proposal next to Tampa Stadium on Dale Mabry Highway and folded in May 1993.

Both cities now wanted the arena downtown. St. Petersburg offered $3.2 million a year in hotel taxes to help finance one near the ThunderDome. Hillsborough pledged $3.5 million.

As discussions heated up, then-St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer warned the franchise the city might treat it as a "short-term tenant" if it didn't stay.

Charles Rainey, Pinellas County Commission chairman at the time, sent a message that the Lightning shouldn't expect open arms in St. Petersburg if it chose Hillsborough instead and the deal fell apart.

In Tampa, then-Mayor Freedman flexed her political muscle by refusing to discuss sharing parking revenue with the team unless the franchise first committed to Hillsborough.

In November 1993, the team announced it was moving to downtown Tampa — partly because officials said it was most accessible to the region.

Tampa made a $20 million commitment that included land, a parking garage and its revenues. Hillsborough County contributed hotel taxes and ticket surcharges over 30 years.

Investors put up millions to secure options or buy plots for the arena.

Then-Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik recalled the years spent lobbying for the arena as "very distracting."

"It takes away from pursuing other higher-purpose issues," he said, "and the first thing I would urge everyone to do is to keep your eye on the ball in dealing with jobs and transportation and other community issues."

Former St. Petersburg deputy administrator Rick Dodge had been instrumental in building what is now Tropicana Field in the 1980s, which he said erased the city's dormant reputation and lured downtown projects. So he knew the benefits of bringing an arena downtown when he tried to lure the Lightning.

Now, however, Tampa Bay has more important needs than building the Rays a new stadium, said Dodge, who works with Sumter County as CEO of E5 Solutions, an economic development company.

"That's the way the game used to be played in major league sports: You try and pit two areas against the other for a stadium, and I don't think that plays anymore."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Rays stadium talk is reminiscent of fight over Lightning arena site 06/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 7:59am]

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