Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the bay area this week by pledging to pay for $35 million in improvements to the St. Pete Times Forum, the publicly owned hockey, concert and special events arena on the downtown Tampa waterfront. The ownership group, which also manages the facility, has a financial stake in improving the experience for hockey fans and keeping the Times Forum competitive in attracting big-name acts. But taxpayers in Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa also have a stake in ensuring that the county-owned facility remains a viable entertainment destination.
There is no doubt that the 14-year-old Times Forum could use an update, particularly with a new arena opening last year in Orlando. The plans call for building an 11,000-square-foot outdoor party deck overlooking downtown; new seats; lighting, heating and air-conditioning improvements; and redesigns of the concourses, seats and locker room. The Times Forum already ranks among the five busiest venues of its size in the nation. But these upgrades will make the facility more comfortable and attractive. They will add years to the useful life of the building. And the Times Forum will have its new look in time to host the 2012 Republican National Convention. (The Times bought naming rights to the facility in 2002.)
Vinik said he may seek to be reimbursed in the future for some of the costs from tourist tax dollars, which are levied on hotel stays. The county agreed in 2006 to put aside $35 million for upgrades to the Times Forum through 2021. But that money is separate from this project. The Lightning expects to draw that money down for routine maintenance, and it is not included in the $35 million renovation plan Vinik unveiled this week. Vinik said he does not know when he would approach the county, or what amount he might seek. But he said he would wait until the economy recovers and will cover the new costs entirely if the county balks.
It made sense in 2006 for the county to pledge hotel tax dollars to renovate the arena, a major tourist and entertainment draw in downtown Tampa. The hotel tax is an appropriate source of money for improving tourist and entertainment facilities, because it invests money in the very venues that draw visitors here in the first place. And the county is ultimately responsible for the Times Forum. But the issue now is balance. The county needs to be clear about the Lightning's commitment and value before considering any new reimbursement schedule.
The county showed good faith in 2006, and the team is showing good faith this time. Vinik and his management team show a genuine desire to win, to play a positive role in the community with his additional $10 million pledge in charitable giving, and to help the bay area grow into a more modern, metropolitan region that offers the amenities and resources to compete nationally and internationally for new jobs and residents. These are building blocks of a strong, healthy relationship that both sides should continue to nurture over time.