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Tampa Jai-Alai's last games in sight

After 45 years in business, the Tampa Jai-Alai is getting ready to put away the cestas and take its last bets.

About 150 employees were notified they are being laid off _ perhaps permanently _ June 30. The parent of the South Tampa facility, Florida Gaming Corp. of Miami, is negotiating to sell its 40-acre site to Monroe's Prestige Group of Clearwater for $8.3-million.

Employees think the site may be developed into a Lowe's home improvement store. But officials with Monroe involved in the deal could not be reached to confirm plans.

Benny Collett Jr., general manager of the Tampa Jai-Alai, was traveling Tuesday and also could not be reached.

Shane Best, marketing and public relations director for the center, said workers were told the last jai alai games will be June 29.

If sale of the site isn't completed by then, Best said, live jai alai will end but inter-track wagering and simulcast operations will continue until the deal is either completed or called off.

The Tampa Jai-Alai opened in 1953 and thrived for years. Organizers blame its financial woes in recent years on taxation, noting the facility lost $1-million last year while paying $1.7-million in taxes.

"This is an industrywide problem. It's not just Tampa," Best said, pointing out that the number of jai alai centers in southern Florida has dwindled to six from 12.

A measure before Gov. Lawton Chiles could alleviate some of the tax burden for struggling centers. But it's unclear whether any action would come soon enough to save the Tampa facility.

Some employees have expressed hope that the Prestige deal might fall through or that jai alai might reopen elsewhere in Tampa in a smaller facility.