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Theater idea not exciting to officials

Tampa and Florida Aquarium officials see drawbacks to a plan to build an amphitheater in the aquarium parking lot.

Mayor Dick Greco has earned a reputation for rolling out the red carpet when developers come calling.

When they want to talk about the slow-to-blossom Channel District, he'll all but greet them with flowers and chocolates.

But a big-name arena and stadium operator with plans to build a covered music amphitheater in the district has received a decidedly lukewarm reception at City Hall.

Philadelphia-based SMG, which manages 68 venues nationwide, including the Ice Palace, has been trying for more than six months to put the 5,500-seat theater on part of the Florida Aquarium's parking lot.

In a sign of their confidence in the district's fortunes, Greco and his top lieutenants have taken a wait-and-see attitude.

"There's continued to be some movement, but we're not ecstatic about it either," said Fernando Noriega, executive director of the business and community services department. "We're not sure that's the highest and best use."

Greco directed SMG to talk with Jeff Swanagan, president of the city-owned aquarium. While he's still listening, Swanagan isn't convinced that the amphitheater will help his attraction, which is on the rebound after years of financial problems.

"I think it's a long shot," he said. "Tampa's had such a bad history of believing people's numbers. I think we lose money on the deal."

The $4-million amphitheater would cover nearly half of the aquarium's 914 parking spaces.

Besides taking the spaces and the cash they generate, Swanagan said, the project could take customers away from the aquarium's evening events.

SMG has offered the city a cut of each ticket sold, said Don Saleski, a senior vice president.

The company pledged not to use the aquarium's remaining parking when both attractions hold events at the same time, he said. SMG would even sell group packages that include a concert and aquarium tickets, Saleski said.

He thinks the offer is a good deal for the aquarium and city, which makes annual debt payments of $6.7-million on the attraction and paid $1-million to subsidize its operations this year.

"We've offered significant revenue that can be very positive to the aquarium," Saleski said. "It can help (Swanagan's) desire for future expansion and put them in a position where they rely less on the city."

SMG sees a niche for concerts too small for the Ice Palace or USF's Sun Dome but too big for the 2,500-seat Morsani Hall at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Saleski ticked off a list of performers appearing at the similar-sized Bank of Boston Pavilion in downtown Boston: Lyle Lovett, Olivia Newton-John, Jethro Tull, Barry Manilow and Britney Spears.

SMG would produce 49 concerts the first year and eventually grow to 70 shows annually with an average gate of 4,000 customers, Saleski said.

They would sit under a huge tent, he said. Nearly all the shows would be at night to avoid Florida's blistering heat during the summer outdoor concert season.

A couple of groups tried to build music amphitheaters in the Channel District in the past decade. Investors abandoned the last idea, the 6,000-seat Deuteron Entertainment Complex planned beside the aquarium, four years ago.

That was among a handful of projects in the district that for various reasons never went further than flashy artist renderings.

But now the area is starting to realize some of its promise.

Channelside at Garrison, a complex of shops, restaurants and a multiscreen movie theater, is under construction. A new convention center hotel will open nearby early next year.

City officials think the $24-million electric trolley running from the convention center to Ybor City, with 10 stops in between, will further spur growth in the district.

"I don't think in our wildest dreams we had a vision of what this area was going to do," Noriega said.

What happens if the amphitheater holds a concert the same night that the Ice Palace has a Lightning game, the movie theaters are full, the aquarium has a special event and a cruise ship is docked at the port's terminal? Swanagan asked.

"One of those venues is going to lose, and I'm going to make sure it's not the aquarium," he said.

As the district develops, the property along Ybor Channel will undoubtedly be too valuable to use as a parking lot, Noriega and Swanagan agree. SMG has offered to let the city tear down and relocate the amphitheater if an irresistible offer comes along, Saleski said.

He wouldn't say how much SMG is offering to lease the land. But the amount is less than the $350,000 a year in annual parking revenue, said aquarium spokeswoman Sue Ellen Richardson.

The city should see what other offers are out there, Swanagan said. Or City Hall should consider letting the aquarium develop it as attendance continues to improve.

"We no longer are in a state of desperation," Swanagan said. "We have time to make decisions that maximize our benefit."

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