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Lightning's search for arena down to 4 sites

As the Tampa Bay Lightning narrowed its sights on four locations, Hillsborough County Administrator Fred Karl was given the authority Wednesday to help the hockey team find a permanent home.

The Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-1 on Wednesday to have Karl negotiate a deal with the team, which has been without a permanent facility to play in since the franchise was awarded two and a half years ago.

The vote is the first formal sign that the commission is ready to work with the hockey team, but commissioners stressed it should not be seen as a commitment to pay for an arena.

"We're obviously gratified at their expression of interest," said Lightning governor David LeFevre. "And we'll be curious to find out any details or ideas the county might have."

LeFevre backed away from a statement made Tuesday by Lightning president Phil Esposito that the team probably will not make a decision about a site until September.

"We've said before publicly we would like to resolve our situation by the middle of July if it's possible, regardless of which side of the bay it's on," LeFevre said. "We'd like to keep that as a target if we can. We're not going to set a date because these things don't lend themselves to a date."

The team is looking at four locations in the Tampa Bay area, LeFevre said. The Lightning's search began with four sites, grew to 12 and eventually encompassed about 20, LeFevre said.

"We're certainly not going to look at any more," LeFevre said. "We're down to four basic locations."

The team plans in the next few days to begin notifying property owners of sites that have been eliminated, LeFevre said. Until that is done, he said he did not want to disclose the locations under consideration.

One that still might be in the running sits along the Interstate 75 corridor near Brandon. Mark Proctor, a real estate agent representing landowners in the area, said the team was impressed with the large tract.

Other sites the team has looked at include the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, several tracts in downtown Tampa, public land near Tampa Stadium and property near the Florida State Fairgrounds, the team's temporary home.

Karl said some public money might be needed to make a deal work, which drew the ire of some citizens and an objection from Commissioner Jan Platt, the lone dissenter in the vote.

Platt argued the county cannot afford to spend public money when so many other more pressing needs are not met. She is in the midst of a campaign to generate public support for new libraries.

"I know when the business community says jump, this board will jump," Platt complained. "I've been here a long time and I know how things work."

That brought a strong rebuke from some of Platt's colleagues.

"I think that's a bunch of bull," said Commissioner Jim Norman. "I need to have information before I can say no to everything."

Most of the commissioners said their action Wednesday does not commit the county to anything but exploring options.

Commissioner Sylvia Kimbell went further, saying she will not support any plan that calls for a commitment of property taxes to an arena.

That was not good enough for some citizens, who argued that a private enterprise such as the Lightning should rise or fall on its own.

"There is a myth about the economic benefit of the sports mania," said Don Pellegrino, a real estate agent and former chairman of the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission.

In his opening statement, Karl said the Lightning has "a substantial present and future beneficial economic impact on Hillsborough County." His comments were echoed by Jim Apthorp, chairman of the Committee of 100, the economic development arm of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

But they were strongly disputed by Betty Crislip of Tampa.

"Real dollar benefits are illusory," Crislip said. She suggested the county hire an economist to analyze any deal Karl develops to test its economic impact.

County Commission Chairman Ed Turanchik argued that the debate should not be framed by economics but the more intangible benefits a major league sports franchise brings to an area.

"We are a community, and there are many pieces to a community, and sports is one of them," he said. "I didn't believe we can afford to lose the Lightning."

While finding a permanent home for the team is Karl's first priority, the commission also gave him the go-ahead to work with the Tampa Sports Authority on a more comprehensive sports facilities plan.

The authority plans to meet Monday to discuss an idea by its executive director, Rick Nafe, that could lead to a spring training facility for the New York Yankees, a training complex for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and major improvements to Tampa Stadium.

Platt said the commission should wait for the authority to consider the plan before telling Karl to start dealing, but the commissioners said there is no need to wait because the commission ultimately will have to fund whatever plan is developed.