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Finding the right home for hockey

In the rush to land a National Hockey League franchise in 1990, Tampa's political leaders seemed to forget that the team was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Pressure to get the team overshadowed the question of where the team should play.

Officials should have tried to assure that a new hockey team would be housed at the site that would bring the greatest possible economic benefit to the city, but that issue was given virtually no consideration when the Tampa Stadium area was chosen as the location for a new hockey arena. The real benefit of that site goes to Tampa Coliseum Inc. and the remnants of the group of investors that unsuccessfully tried to bring baseball to Tampa. Any attempt to initiate public discussion of the site was frantically stifled by Tampa Coliseum officials.

At the time the location was put forward, the National Hockey League deadline was pressing, and the Tampa Coliseum group's plans surely helped sway the NHL in Tampa's favor.

But with groundbreaking now one year behind schedule and as much as a $60-million public investment required to get the $120-million project off the ground, Tampa Coliseum officials have had all the breaks they can reasonably expect.

If the Tampa Coliseum group can't meet the upcoming May 31 deadline to obtain financing, the Tampa Sports Authority should cancel its lease and local political leaders should seize the opportunity to start over with a full, public review of the project.

The franchise has been awarded, and the Lightning is settled temporarily in the Florida Suncoast Dome. Most important, the once-private arena deal now depends on an enormous infusion of state money. There now is time for the careful consideration the taxpayers deserve.

It also appears that there is the political will. Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, County Commissioners Ed Turanchik and Joe Chillura and others say they're ready to look for alternatives. Freedman and Turanchik favor a downtown arena that could spark waterfront development, and that might prove to be the best location. Before that decision is made, however, there must be an objective assessment of all possible sites.

The question is no longer just what's best for hockey, but also what's best for the community.