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Tampa hockey arena's first piece falls into place

The Tampa Bay Lightning bought the first piece of land for its downtown hockey arena Wednesday, and, once again, team executives said they plan to have the arena open by October 1995.

"I think we're at a stage where we're beginning to go from a theory of this building to the reality," Lightning Governor David LeFevre said.

The Lightning paid $1.5-million to the Creighton, Creighton and Joiner ownership group for about half a city block near Tampa's waterfront. The team is scheduled to close on the rest of the land needed for the $110-million arena by March 31.

Demolition of aging warehouses and other buildings on the site could begin within two weeks, and work on the foundation of the 650,000 square foot arena is expected to start soon after.

The Lightning also unveiled rough sketches of the finished arena, a building that the team says will easily accommodate hockey, basketball, concerts, ice shows and other events.

"It is designed to be a very flexible, very multipurpose facility," said Michael Wright, the project manager for Ellerbe-Becket, the firm designing the arena.

When complete, Tampa's arena is expected to feature "much more sophisticated" layouts than its counterparts in Miami and Orlando, Wright said.

The team hired Ellerbe-Becket not only for its experience designing hockey arenas, including the new America West Arena in Phoenix, but because it is the architect for the National Basketball Association.

LeFevre said the Lightning wanted "to make sure this arena was designed very specifically with the NBA in mind, to make sure it meets all their criteria."

That, the team hopes, will enhance the chances of bringing an NBA franchise to Tampa.

"We've made it known that this building is a reality, and we want (professional basketball) in it," LeFevre said. "We're the largest market in the United States without a franchise, and we should be next in line."

The arena will have 21,000 seats available for concerts, a few less for hockey and basketball games.

The arena will be developed with contributions from the city totaling about $20-million, as well as $2-million a year from the state and $3.5-million a year from Hillsborough County.

LeFevre said the public would not have to absorb the cost of any delays or unexpected developments during construction.

The public's amount "is fixed," LeFevre said. "That is the beauty of this transaction."

The Lightning and Ellerbe-Becket expect to finish the arena on schedule by taking an unusual approach during construction.

Typically, building an arena requires contractors to station a huge crane in the middle of the building to help construct the roof. As a result, a large hole must be left in one wall so the crane can pull out when the roof is finished.

In the Lightning arena's case, Ellerbe-Becket thinks the crane can be stationed outside during construction. From there, it will lift sections of the roof into place.

Architects estimate that approach should cut four to five months from the time required for construction.

When finished, the arena will have 71 luxury suites, with room for 108 suites once the arena is built out. LeFevre said the team already has commitments or letters of intent for about 50 of the initial 71 suites.

The suites will be built on two levels, with the lower level 21 rows back from the ice, the closest of any arena in the National Hockey League.

"I'm thrilled that this first level of suites is going to be where it is," said Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito. "If I was a player . . . I would love to play in a place like this."