The Florida State Fair should move ahead in seeking proposals to develop its property in Hillsborough County. The fair authority has plenty of land, and it needs a stronger revenue stream to keep the fair and its larger mission of promoting Florida agriculture healthy for the years ahead. But it also must ensure that any proposal serves a public purpose and is a good fit for the fairgrounds and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The authority board will vote Friday on whether to seek bids on developing some or all of the fairgrounds property. The 331-acre complex, located about 8 miles east of downtown Tampa along Interstate 4, hosts about 300 events each year in addition to the annual state fair. Yet the property has ample space to accommodate more events or new development. If history is any guide, there would be no shortage of potential partners. For developers and the authority, this opportunity amounts to a blank canvas that could improve the finances of the fair and the character of the area. The board needs to get it right.
As they have before, board members are sending the right messages about what would be appropriate for the site. Board chairman Doyle Carlton III correctly noted that any new uses must not "compromise the core of the fair." Any plan must be in keeping with the land's use as a public destination. The fair must preserve the property it needs, and the financial terms must strengthen the authority's ability to continue its valuable role in promoting agriculture, history and youth programs.
Board members are right to insist that potential partners be highly accomplished developers with a strong track record. The property will remain in public hands for the foreseeable future, and any development would impact the operation of the fair. Board members should continue to insist that any bid process be orderly and transparent. The public has a stake in the development of a major gateway into Tampa, and nearby residents should know how any development will affect traffic, the area's environment and other quality of life issues.
Whether the right project comes along remains to be seen. Board members need to recognize the value of a site that is readily accessible to millions across the central region of the state. At this early stage, though, the authority is moving responsibly to improve a public asset. The coming weeks will show whether any developer shares that civic-minded vision.