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Don't bother bringing grills to NCAAs at Dome

Forget the charcoal briquets.

Talk of tailgating in ThunderDome parking lots during the NCAA basketball tournament games this month has been dropped.

"It's a safety issue, pure and simple," said downtown facilities director Robert Leighton.

Tailgating has never been allowed at the Dome, but city officials were considering an exception for the March 18 and 20 basketball games, expected to draw more than 20,000 spectators.

With at least one long break during the six games, officials pondered tailgating as an option for spectators who didn't want to fight traffic and long lines at restaurants.

The idea was dropped, but that doesn't mean people can't eat a sandwich or sip a soda inside their cars, said Leighton.

"We are discouraging it," Leighton said. "Some people make tailgating an art form. The policy is about the people who want to get out tents and hibachis and gas grills." Lawn chairs and kiddie pools, too, will be frowned on, he said.

Cooking setups could prove dangerous, and the layout of the parking lots _ with cars pulled right next to each other _ doesn't suit safe tailgating, Leighton said.

As is common during Dome events, stadium workers will patrol the parking lots, notifying anyone who tries to tailgate to quit.

"It's never been an issue before," said Bill Boggs, who handles promotions for the Dome. "We've never had a problem with it."

The decision was not made to help downtown restaurant sales, Leighton said. But that's what it probably will mean.

Business leaders have begun planning special promotions to make the most of the weekend. Free shuttle bus rides will carry tournament spectators from the Dome to various spots downtown from 3:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. March 18, Leighton said. That's the Friday evening break that is expected to cause the busiest food rush.

Twelve First Class Coach Co. buses will run a loop, which will make stops at the Dome and at seven spots around downtown, Leighton said. The full-size buses should come along every five minutes, he said. The cost, about $3,000, will be paid by the St. Petersburg Times, Leighton said.

Leighton isn't sure how crowded roads and restaurants will be. "We can't forecast that," he said. So far, about 18,000 people have purchased tickets for the Dome games, which would be sold out at 23,000.