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A Times Editorial

The curious case of the TIA building

Remember that old, vacant office building at Tampa International Airport, the one the Hills- borough County Aviation Authority voted earlier this month to tear down? The one TIA executive director Louis Miller said no one wanted to rent?

Last week, officials from Moffitt Cancer Center toured the place. They're interested.

Turns out they approached the airport about the building last October. Moffitt officials, in fact, suggested they would be willing to pay $600,000 per year. That would be more than $100,000 more than the previous tenants were paying.

Miller knew that last month when he issued a demolition order on the place to make way for airport expansion some day. But this is the second time in two weeks that TIA's board of directors (with one notable exception) learned something they didn't know — but should have — about this 30-year-old building.

The board initially was surprised to learn that Miller had decided on his own that the 45,000-square-foot office building had outlived its usefulness. And that he talked it over with one member of the board: Aviation Authority chairman Al Austin.

When St. Petersburg Times reporter Michael Van Sickler asked about this, Miller said he had unilateral authority to tear down the building and only mentioned it to Austin to keep him abreast of things. But other authority board members thought they ought to be consulted, too. So Miller brought it to them, and they voted 3-1 to let him go ahead and level the building.

Now it turns out Moffitt Cancer Center is tentatively interested in it. Miller and Austin knew this, but, as Miller cryptically remarked when asked why he didn't mention Moffitt's interest before, "It didn't come up.''

"He told me it was impossible to rent the building because the office market has about a 20 percent vacancy rate," authority member Joseph Diaco said of Miller. "I agree we need to stop the demolition with these newfound facts. I'm surprised by this revelation."

So the building's fate is on hold again while the while airport staff evaluates Moffitt's interest.

Austin's position in all this is complicated, to say the least.

He is chairman of the airport authority and also owns 400,000 square feet of commercial office real estate in the West Shore area, just a puddle jump from the airport. He not only heads the Aviation Authority board but also sits on the Moffitt Cancer Center Foundation board of directors. Even Miller thought that was a conflict, and told him so, as Austin mentioned in an interview.

Whatever the authority decides to do, Austin ought to bow out. He may think he's being impartial. He may even manage to be impartial. But this is a conflict to the third power. The same person shouldn't be voting on whether to rent a building, serving on a board of the prospective tenant, and running a business that rents office space in the same market.

The curious case of the TIA building 01/17/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 3:30am]
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