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Positive steps for sports

There are signs of leadership from two groups with a big stake in the future of professional sports in the Tampa Bay Area.

The Tampa Sports Authority's executive committee and the Hillsborough County Commission both took steps this week to address the critical sports needs the area faces now and will face in the not-too-distant future.

First, the Sports Authority enthusiastically endorsed a $110-million proposal by executive director Rick Nafe that would build a spring training facility for the New York Yankees, a much-needed training facility for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and would help pay for a permanent home for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The proposal also includes $50-million to renovate Tampa Stadium.

County Administrator Fred Karl presented the proposal to the county commission this week, and he was given approval to investigate it. Karl will be able to negotiate on behalf of the county and make a report to the commissioners for their review.

The proposal is a long way from reality. Raising $110-million would require either a major bond issue or some short-term tax increase. Both would need broad-based community support.

But there is much merit in Nafe's proposal.

First, it would keep the Lightning in the area. If Tampa Bay is to continue its hunt for Major League Baseball, the community needs to keep the franchises it already has. That means working to find a home for the Lightning and maintaining a good relationship _ and good facilities _ for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Yankees maintain some corporate offices here and a rookie training complex, but under this proposal, the team would move its popular spring training and minor league operation to new fields just across the street from Tampa Stadium. When not in use by the Yankees, those fields could be used by the Hillsborough Community College baseball team.

The actions by the sports authority executive committee and the county commission do not bind either group to spend any money or raise any taxes at this point. It only allows negotiations and investigations to begin. Since the county commission would be asked to come up with money to finance some part of this plan, it is appropriate that Fred Karl, a strong negotiator, will lead the effort.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the Lightning and other sports franchises, this is a critical step in the right direction.