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Authority frets about money, music

Published Oct. 4, 2005

(ran NS S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

Officials from the state Department of Agriculture say they look forward to overseeing the Florida State Fair Authority starting next week. But the preview of the task they got Friday had to be a bit unnerving.

First, authority members fretted about the October deadline they face to make state-mandated fire safety improvements and about trouble they are having getting a $500,000 bank loan to pay for the work. It seems there's no collateral available for the loan, and the authority's balance sheet looks a little shaky for a signature loan without collateral.

Next, the boss at the fairgrounds discussed improving that balance sheet by hosting more outdoor concerts. But influential authority members flayed the idea, calling typical concert music not only a health risk but immoral.

Later, there was strenuous insistence that no money was missing, despite a recent audit report that pointed to a $5-million disparity between apparent attendance at the 1994 state fair and actual gate receipts.

Authority members explained they had exaggerated attendance by 300 percent or so, partly to make sponsors feel good. Then they promised they wouldn't do it anymore, even though they're pretty sure just about everybody else in the fair business does it.

The authority that oversees the $15-million-a-year business at the fairgrounds has a history of problems. Before Steve Eckerson took over as president of Florida Expo Park in 1993, employees called the place "a hornet's nest." More recently, state legislators characterized the body as "a snake pit."

Distressed at tales of back-stabbing and ethics violations, legislators this year declined to confirm gubernatorial appointments to the authority, then drafted a bill paring its size and making it answer to the agriculture commissioner's office.

The new law takes effect July 1, and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford is dispatching a task force to the authority on Wednesday to huddle with department heads and to work out problems turned up in a blistering audit by the state auditor general.

Friday, authority Chairman John H. Stengel stressed that most problems revealed by the state audit occurred a couple of years ago, before his administration tightened procedures.

Still, although personnel costs have dropped by 7 percent from a year ago, Stengel said more layoffs and pay cuts may be necessary for the staff that administers the 600-acre fairgrounds. Cash flow must be improved for banks to consider the loan the authority needs to make safety improvements required by the state fire marshal, such as voice activated fire alarms.

"If I was a bank, I wouldn't touch it," businessman and authority member Olin Mott said Friday.

Yet Mott also was quick to condemn a plan by Eckerson to proceed with outdoor concerts, such as the Metallica concert that earned the authority a cool $70,000 last year.

"It's gotten so bad in this country with hard rock and rap music that the American Medical Association says it's dangerous," Mott said. "I'm totally opposed to it. I don't believe it's a moral music."

Eckerson said the Metallica concert helped fill the 10 hotels closest to the fairgrounds and tripled the receipts of local businesses. He also said he wants to appease neighbors who complained about Metallica by dedicating a percentage of future concert receipts to neighborhood improvements.

But authority member Doyle Carlton Jr. joined Mott's chorus, saying he hoped Crawford would take "a strong stand" against outdoor concerts in favor of "telling the story of Florida" instead.

With respect to fair attendance, Stengel promised there would be no more phony numbers.

That will be a distinct departure from the past.

In 1994, officials reported attendance of 1.3-million at the fair. They began to back away from the number after auditors said many patrons should have put $5-million more in fair coffers than was reported.

Friday, Stengel explained that attendance had been inflated by unpaid exhibitors, free passes _ and the wish of fair officials to impress sponsors with big numbers. The real paid attendance was about 395,000, he said, and head-counting will be taken more seriously beginning next year.

"In 1996, you can expect turnstiles at every gate," Stengel said. "We're going to be committed to accuracy and accountability."