1. Archive


American Gladiators Dinner Theater is this town's newest tourist distraction, a 3-week-old local alternative to Mickey Mouse.

The chance to watch sinewy television athletes perform in person while you munch a banquet-grade chicken dinner will, it is hoped, induce visitors to spend some more time and money in Kissimmee before crossing the county line to visit the Magic Kingdom.

But now some leaders of Osceola County and its towns of Kissimmee and St. Cloud have an idea for an even greater attraction _ one they hope might make Shamu and MGM mere afterthoughts for package-tour families:

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It might not seem to make sense, when one considers the other cities that restless Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer has approached about relocating in the last year:

Los Angeles.



And now, Kissimmee.

One of these cities is, after all, not like the others.

Kissimmee sits atop a cattle-ranch county beset with traffic jams, T-shirt shops and British-style pubs. There is nothing approaching unanimity about the proposal to build an NFL football stadium here. The debate is also about the effect of tourism on this community, and Kissimmee's complicated relationship with its far bigger municipal cousin, Orlando.

"We can't even get our roads built," said Jennings Overstreet, a fourth-generation cattle rancher whose father and grandfather were county commissioners. "I don't think little old Osceola County can afford anything like that."

But for those who live to lure snow-sick visitors to Florida, an NFL team is a marketer's dream.

"This gives the world traveler one more major attraction to visit here," said Jim Murphy, a Kissimmee hotel consultant who is a member of the local Tourist Development Council. "This would give great exposure to the NFL in Europe."

Murphy imagines travel agents wrapping football tickets into a weeklong package trip to Central Florida that would offer something to every member of a family from Milwaukee or Munich.

"Imagine the Green Bay Packers versus the Central Florida Bucs," said Murphy, a Chicago native. "I would love to see the Kissimmee Bucs. Or just the Bucs. Like the Bears. We'd include the hotel, tickets to the football game and attractions. Magic Kingdom. MGM. Universal. Sea World. Gladiators. Dinner shows. I mean, we got some great dinner theaters.

"You can schedule from late August through December or January, hopefully, if the team gets into the playoffs," Murphy said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation. I'm totally for it."

Landing an NFL team would also give small-town Kissimmee a mega dose of big-league status. The area traditionally has marketed itself as the cheaper alternative to Orlando-area hotels and restaurants. Close to the major attractions but without the major prices.

"Location is our biggest attraction," said Paul Comer, the executive director of the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Convention and Visitors Bureau. Osceola's 33,000 motel rooms and campground spaces drew an estimated 6-million visitors last year, generating billions of dollars in trade.

Not bad, for a county of only 130,000 residents and 104,000 head of cattle.

But there are twinges of insecurity in Kissimmee's relationship with Orlando. To get the best read on it, one has to go to downtown Kissimmee. Just a few miles from the tourist crush of U.S. Highway 192, it is an urban experience so relaxed in tone there are no parking meters on the main drag.

There, at the Broadway Barber Shop, amid the sounds of wet hair being snipped and good old boys ragging each other, garage owner Al Key puts a fine point on it.

"We used to be the red-headed stepchild as far as Orlando was concerned," Key said. "That's changing. But Osceola is not big enough by itself to do this."

Orlando has made it clear it won't help pay for an NFL stadium in Kissimmee. Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood offers only to renovate the Citrus Bowl for the Glazers.

Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin has pledged "no sweetheart deals" for any NFL owner looking to move there.

And Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos doesn't want to share his team's support with an NFL group.

A major stumbling block is that Orange County tourist tax receipts can't by law be spent on an Osceola County stadium. But a proposal floated late last week to move the Orange-Osceola county line through the proposed stadium site might change that.

If anyone can figure out a way to make this deal work, the guys at the barber shop say, Charlie can.

Charlie is Charles Owen, the chairman of the Osceola County Commission. He has met with Bucs officials three times in as many recent weeks to talk about the county building a 65,000-seat stadium for the team. It would stand close to the Orange County line, on a site whose owners include a number of local physicians. Time-share magnate David Siegel is a big private supporter of the project, Owen says.

Loans to pay for a new stadium would cost the county upward of $15-million a year. Owen might have up to $6-million in tourist tax money available for the project, plus another $2-million from the state. He wants to try to swing a deal that involves no property taxes.

"Right now, it's a pipe dream," he concedes.

But Owen is setting up meetings with the Merrill Lynch bond representatives who worked on a stadium project for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

Owen tried three years ago to bring a $50-million spring-training stadium and an amphitheater complex for the New York Yankees to Osceola. But other commissioners didn't go along.

Owen feels the Glazers have been forthright with him, and aren't out to use Osceola as a pawn against other cities. He also likes the fact that Kissimmee is 20 minutes closer to Tampa than is downtown Orlando _ something that might keep present Bucs season ticket-holders on board.

"We've got to get real creative, build consensus among local leaders, businesses and governments," Owen said. "We think we can do it."

By all accounts, though, Owen is going to have his work cut out for him selling the deal to county residents. The last thing Rebecca Ferlita wants to see in town is an NFL team.

"It'll just bring more tourists in," said Ferlita, a Kissimmee native who works as a waitress at Joanie's Diner. "We can't handle the traffic as it is."

But one of the diner's customers said he would love to see the Bucs come to town. A new stadium could give Kissimmee an upcoming Super Bowl.

"I'm in disbelief Tampa's gonna let them slide away," said Bill Lannuier, who earns his living repairing restaurant equipment at EPCOT. The night before, he'd fixed an oven in France.

Lannuier hedged his support, though, saying he would vote for a stadium tax only if some money went to other projects like road improvement.

And some of Osceola's most longstanding residents are among the most wary about the stadium proposal. Ten miles and a century away from the $17-a-night motel specials of Highway 192, Jennings Overstreet is tending to his cattle on 1,600 acres of Florida savanna, the way his father did, and his father before him.

The same cold snap that forced the tourists into their down coats has given some of his calves pneumonia. He has lost 20 of them in recent days.

Overstreet, 60, used to serve on the county planning board. He concedes that lots of local people made money after Disney came to town. His family sold off land that became part of the tourist trade.

"But we've had to build schools" at a rapid rate, he adds.

Overstreet said he loves sports, and goes to every Gator game he can. But he won't support an NFL stadium plan. And he predicts taxpayers won't, either.

"We got more important things to take care of."

While saying he generally agrees with Commission Chairman Owen, Overstreet dismisses those who would turn Kissimmee into another Orlando, with its professional sports and upper-crust attitudes.

"I'm a home-grown boy. I don't care if you have 10 cents in your pocket or $100-million. If you're the right kind of man, that's what matters."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.