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Arena financing off to market

With the Tampa Sports Authority's approval Monday, the Tampa Bay Lightning poised itself to close one of the biggest sports-financing deals this city has ever seen.

The authority unanimously approved a series of seven bond issues _ five relying on public money and two involving private loans _ needed to pay for the arena.

"I think it's a miracle that all these different parties and all these different concerns have come together at one time and in one spot," said Tampa Bay Lightning Governor David LeFevre.

Now the team can go to the bond market, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, to close on its financing and speed up work at the arena construction site near downtown Tampa.

Despite past delays, the Lightning still wants to play its 1996-97 season at the Tampa arena. The team will play its coming season at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg.

"We're shooting for October of '96, and we think we can still make it," LeFevre said. "We have not been able to go full-speed because we have not had all of the bond proceeds."

When complete, the arena will seat 18,500 fans for hockey games, with room for 19,500 at basketball, tennis, boxing and similar sports and 20,500 for concerts.

So far, LeFevre said, the team has put $16- to $17-million of its own money into buying the land, clearing the site and starting the foundation for the arena.

For public officials, Monday's vote by the Sports Authority _ the government agency that will have its name on the bonds _ ends an ordeal that has dragged on for about two years.

"Finally," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said afterward. "The wait has been worth the pain."

In all, the arena is expected to cost $144-million to develop. While construction is under way, the Lightning will pay for the work with money from three different sets of bonds:

A $28-million public bond issue backed by $2-million a year in state sales tax revenues.

$60-million in private bonds held by two insurance companies _ the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America and New York Life Insurance Co. The Lightning will repay this debt from arena revenues.

$55.8-million in private bonds held by Shawmut Bank of Massachusetts and First Union Bank, which is expected to be replaced by $56-million in bonds backed by the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

No money from the city or county will be spent on the arena until construction is finished. And that money will come from hotel room taxes paid by visitors, parking revenues at the arena and surcharges on tickets at arena events.

"The end result is that we get a $130-million arena in downtown Tampa without spending any general revenues, and that's good," Turanchik said.

When the city and county money becomes available, the Lightning plans to use it to retire the bonds held by the banks, which essentially are a bridge loan. As a result, the permanent financing for the arena will come from two main sources _ a total of $84-million in bond issues backed by government agencies and $60-million in bonds held by the insurance companies.

Under the terms of the Lightning's 30-year lease at the arena, the facility will be made available to the city, county and Sports Authority for a total of six charity events a year.

More important, the lease includes stiff financial penalties for the team if it breaks the lease and moves the team out of town.

"At least in the foreseeable future, it's very unlikely that the Lightning will move," said John I. Van Voris, a lawyer advising the Sports Authority on the arena's financing.