The Florida State Fair is smart to look at maximizing its unused property on its sprawling home east of Tampa. Creating a new revenue stream could bolster the fair's finances and help it maintain its mission of promoting Florida history, agriculture and education. But a bid by a private group seeking to take control of the property looks like a weak deal that leaves the fair more as a public front than a public-minded institution. The fair authority's governing board should seriously vet this offer before even considering a vote.
Republic Land Development has proposed remaking nearly 200 acres of the 330-acre site, virtually the entire footprint with the exception of the midway area, amphitheater and Cracker Country, an outdoor re-creation of old Florida. In the first phase, the developer would bring a 200-room hotel (which could double in size), an athletic facility, virtual golf and a water sports and wake board park.
Republic's concept is to create a tourist destination for sports and entertainment. Future phases would include a drive-in theater, "high-end" bowling alley, a "restaurant park" and retail, including a big-box store near the fair's gateway at Interstate 4 and U.S. 301.
Entertainment is certainly an appropriate use of fair property. But this plan is a catchall that fails to balance entertainment and profit with the fair's historic mission of promoting the culture and economy of Florida. What do bowling and golf have to do with Florida history and agriculture? Is it smart or fair to allow public land to underwrite a theme park, restaurants and stores, giving them a competitive advantage against other private businesses?
The proposal also raises larger concerns. The build-out would hem in the midway and exhibits, making it hard to expand. These areas are crowded already; not increasing the circulation space would be bad for safety and the visitor experience, and it goes against the recommendation of the fair authority's own master plan. The fair's take also looks small. The hotel, for example, is expected to generate $250,000 a year for the first decade to the authority. But the developer wants to offset those payments by the proceeds from a special taxing district that would pay for improvements to the property. So the fair would be financing this project in the form of reduced rents to tenants using public land to turn a profit.
The fair's biggest asset is its location, at the crossroads of two major highways convenient to 5 million people. The board should be sensitive to how the land is used and the length of time any development would tie up the property. Republic wants a lease that could extend 70 years. Board members should not get swept away by the first and only offer on the table.
The authority was established under Florida law to "stimulate public interest" in the history, economy and culture of the state. And as the authority pointed out this year, the duty to promote the role that agriculture plays becomes even more important as the state becomes more urban. It is essential that private profits be appropriately balanced with the fair's unique mission of furthering a way of life and a vital industry.