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Hockey officials say not to worry

On the site where fans hope to watch pro hockey's gladiators streak across the ice at a new Tampa Coliseum, there is, thus far: A plywood sign proclaiming the property as the new home of the Tampa Bay Lightning; two construction trailers; a bumper crop of weeds.

Since the March 28 groundbreaking, the deadline for starting construction on the coliseum south of Tampa Stadium has come and gone three times. There hovers around the project, once scheduled for completion by October 1992, an air of doubt and anxiety.

"It wouldn't be the first time silver shovels went into the ground and no construction was ever done," said Tom Morrison, a Tampa bond attorney familiar with the project.

Phil Esposito, the Hall of Fame player and now the impresario behind the hockey push for Tampa, thundered that if the lease between the hockey franchise and the coliseum wasn't completed by last week, the developers "better be able to swim because I'll throw them in the bay."

Also, it is hard to think of a tougher time to build a new arena. The recession lingers, and lenders already have overdosed on big, speculative construction projects.

Public attitudes about using tax money are resoundingly negative. When developers of the coliseum faced off with county and city officials and asked for public money, the developers were slapped hard.

"No public money. Not a cent," said Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman.

In addition, the Tampa Bay area seems flush with sports stadiums and entertainment halls pinched by lack of use. For all that, the promise of roaring crowds at a luxurious new 18,500-seat coliseum likely will come to pass.

The developer, Tampa Coliseum Inc., has the bread, and hockey fans will have their circus.

Marc Ganis, executive vice president of Tampa Coliseum, likes to refer to the coliseum as a "fully private" project, but his group fortuitously found a source of public funding in Tallahassee that will cover about 20 percent of the coliseum's cost, or about $19-million.

The coliseum's stockholders will chip in $20-million, Ganis said. The key player is Tampa real estate developer William L. Mack. He and his associates are the largest shareholders, Ganis said. "It would boggle my mind if Bill Mack or anybody else walked away from this deal," said Garry Smith, president of L. Garry Smith & Associates Inc. in Tampa, which was involved in the initial financing proposal.

The remainder of the debt, about $60-million, will be financed by bonds and guaranteed by Fuji Bank Ltd. It will be paid back with money from the arena's advertising, concessions, parking, luxury suites and club seats. In the scramble to generate revenues, everything is for sale, including the name of the arena.

But even at this late date there are "ifs": No lease has been signed between the Lightning franchise and the coliseum, and the final guarantee for the financing provided by Fuji Bank hasn't been signed. It will take weeks more before the first column of concrete is poured.

Still, people involved in the transaction agree that the pieces will fall into place.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal," said Ira Federer, a corporate vice president with Prudential Securities Inc. in Tampa, which is involved in the financing.

There's less agreement on whether the coliseum can make money.

"This is enormously risky," Ganis concedes.

Certainly the state is helping the coliseum group hedge its bet.

When Tampa politicians balked at spending local tax dollars to back the coliseum, other government money was found in the nick of time.

In late May, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a bill that allows sports facilities with a signed lease with a major professional sports team to receive $2-million annually from the state. That is an offset of sales taxes the facility will generate yearly, not a sales tax rebate as sometimes described.

"After the (stadium) groups are certified, they will receive $2-million per year," said Christian Weiss, legislative economist with the House Committee on Finance and Taxation.

The players don't have to hit the ice before the dollars start rolling in. The payout begins in July 1992, regardless of whether the arena is finished. The guaranteed $2-million annually for 30 years will allow the coliseum group to sell about $19-million in bonds to cover construction costs.

Hockey, however, was not the sport legislators had in mind when the subsidy was proposed in 1988. Originally, St. Petersburg officials had lobbied hard for funds to help attract baseball to the Florida Suncoast Dome.

Now with baseball near dead in St. Petersburg, the law will be the cornerstone for bringing hockey to Tampa. Said Ganis, "It's very helpful."

Equally important is the experienced hand of Fuji Bank, which is fast making friends in the arena financing world.

Fuji has been involved in three other arena deals: Sacramento, California, Phoenix, Ariz., and St. Louis, all similar to the one proposed in Tampa.

"Our experience in Phoenix will be applied to what we're doing in Tampa," said Mike Rogers, a Fuji official in San Francisco.

To entice Fuji to back $44-million in bonds in Arizona, the Phoenix Suns basketball team had to show signed contracts for concession sales, luxury boxes and advertising inside the arena, said Richard Dozer, the Suns' chief operating officer.

That formula, none of the parties have revealed the details, is the one Tampa Coliseum is using to make its deal work, at least on paper.

The coliseum will lease luxury boxes for between $45,000 and $110,000 per year. There are 85 of these available, and the group hopes to generate about $3.6-million. Senior marketing executive Renee Puchalla will not say how many are leased.

The luxury box has changed the way the financing for a sports facility works. "It turns it upside down," said Robert Durante, an assistant vice president for public finance at Standard & Poor's Corp. in New York. "It used to be attendance levels were the most important thing. But the luxury suites change that."

Other sources of revenue are advertising inside the building, parking, a small piece of the ticket price, three dining clubs, concessions, and novelty items.

In Phoenix the name of the arena was sold to America West Airlines, so that it will be known as the America West Arena. The airline pays $550,000 a year for that privilege.

Said Ganis confidently, "We can do better than that." The coliseum hopes to sell the name for about $750,000, according to preliminary financial documents.

Overall, after the debt service is paid and the operating expenses covered, the coliseum could net investors $3-million in its first year of operation, according to preliminary documents.

But time is pressing the coliseum developers and the Lightning.

Unless construction starts pronto, the team would have to play its first games in 1992 either on the road or in the Dome, which Esposito describes as a great place to play baseball.

On Monday, Ganis again predicted that a lease will be signed "this week," perhaps today. But even if that happens, it could take several weeks, or perhaps months, to sell the bonds and start construction.

To speed up the process the coliseum group could get a bridge loan from a bank. After the bonds are sold, the proceeds could be used to pay off the loan.

Said Ganis, "We're looking at that."

Still, that leaves impatient fans and civic boosters looking for something more than a promise and weeds.

Tampa Coliseum: A chronology

1990

Nov. 1

Tampa Coliseum Inc., the company that holds the rights to the Tampa Sports Authority's land next to Tampa Stadium, and Phil Esposito's Tampa Bay Hockey Group announce an agreement for construction of an arena.

Dec. 3

Hillsborough County Commission votes against using public money to guarantee part of the debt for the arena.

Dec. 4

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman and hockey backers say they have agreed to build the arena using only private money guaranteed by Fuji Bank Ltd. of Japan.

Dec. 6

The National Hockey League awards a franchise to Tampa to be called the Tampa Bay Lightning. ... Tampa Coliseum officials say they will start construction on the arena after the Super Bowl in January. They add the are confident they can complete the building in time for the start of the 1992-93 season _ a promise that leaves them 20 months.

1991

March 28

A ceremonial groundbreaking is held at the site for the coliseum. Officials say construction will begin in late April.

April 26

Tampa Coliseum officials say their enthusiasm made them too optimistic. Marc Ganis, executive vice president of Tampa Coliseum Inc., says it will be at least four more weeks before construction can gegin.

June 7

The hockey franchise and Tampa Coliseum Inc. say they have been unable to finalize all points of the arena lease, delaying the start of construction until the end of June.

_ Compiled by Times researcher Kitty Bennett from Times files.

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