As the Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ice for its first regular season game Wednesday, the people planning a permanent home for the hockey team crossed a major hurdle of their own.
Tampa Coliseum Inc. announced it would forgo a $1-million buyout from the Lightning, which would have required it to give up its plan to build a $114-million facility on property adjacent to Tampa Stadium.
Instead, the coliseum developer placed $250,000 into an escrow account for the Lightning as a penalty for not having financing for the proposed arena in place.
The payment was part of a deal worked out in June between the Lightning and the developer that helped persuade the Tampa Sports Authority to extend a lease on the property site through March 1993.
Another payment will be due in 30 days if financing still is not in place. Coliseum officials already are planning to make that payment. They said Tuesday they hope to have financing for the coliseum "around the very late fall of this year."
Wednesday's payment was seen by the developers and Lightning officials as a sign that the project is on track despite widespread skepticism.
"I think they surprised a lot of people," said Lightning Vice President Mel Lowell. "They did what they had to do. I would have to say it's very, very positive."
Lowell pointed to other positive signs. The developers are leasing space in a downtown building to show off luxury suites that would be available at the coliseum. They also have moved into offices, bought 18 Lightning season tickets and "several hundred" tickets to the Lightning's first regular-season game Wednesday night.
"If one uses that as a litmus test," Lowell said, "they're on their way."
More good news is coming, Coliseum officials assured.
"We have been negotiating a number of major deals that will make the Tampa Coliseum one of the major entertainment venues in the world," Tampa Coliseum President James Cusack said in a prepared statement. "We expect to make a number of significant announcements about Coliseum activities in the next 45 days."
Marc Ganis, the coliseum's executive vice president, said the company's decision to relinquish its rights to sell its assets to the Lightning "says a great deal about our confidence in completing the transaction."
The coliseum group announced last week that it is delaying for 60 days a $100,000 payment to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for advertising rights to the land it is leasing from the sports authority.
The Lightning is playing at the Florida State Fairgrounds for its first two seasons.
_ TOM SCHERBERGER