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Davidson just wants some help

There is money to be spent. A little for a backup goalie. Maybe more for a defenseman. But they're a bit short on the arena rent.

There are deals to be made. The kind that nudge a young team toward the postseason. Maybe even help long-term. But they can't agree to pay their taxes.

Isn't it just the way. Just about the time the Lightning becomes a contender in the NHL, it moves to the brink of contention with the community.

A problem that largely has been played out behind the curtains could soon move to center stage. Lightning management wants a better deal at the St. Pete Times Forum and is growing less inhibited with its complaints.

Owner William Davidson was in town Thursday, which is notable in itself. There are rock bands with more Forum appearances the past three years.

Davidson said he was here to see the players, but there also was a meeting to be had with Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

Davidson's message was simple, if not simplistic. As far as he's concerned, the ownership group has stepped up, the players have stepped up and the fans have stepped up. Now it's time for Tampa to step up before the Lightning steps out.

"Our responsibility was to clean up as much as we could. We did clean up, we did our thing," Davidson said. "We now have a good coaching staff, we now have a good general manager, we now have decent players, fans are responding.

"None of these things are what we really need. What we need is a proper setup from the city, county, state."

That would be your cue to harrumph.

Followed closely by a heavy sigh and exaggerated head slap.

You have, of course, heard this before. A billionaire owner who employs millionaire players and is looking for relief from taxpayers.

Except for the weight of gold involved, the story is not much different than the days of the Athletics in Philadelphia or the Lakers in Minneapolis.

This is the price of doing business in professional athletics. If you do not agree, then check with fans in Cleveland, Houston or Charlotte. They recently lost NFL or NBA teams and paid obscene ransoms to acquire replacement franchises.

Lightning officials are not unlocking the door to that type of ultimatum. But they do have the keys in their hands.

"Look, we're not making any threats to anyone in any way," Lightning CEO Tom Wilson said. "We're just hoping they look at all of the evidence presented to them and understand what we're up against."

And if government officials do not respond, would relocation be an option?

"Nobody is saying that," Wilson said. "But, of course, you would have to consider all of your options at that point."

In cases such as this, the first inclination is to search for the villain. The miserly little businessman with a heart of coal.

Davidson is not that guy. He has pretty much done what he promised. The Forum has become a more fan-friendly venue and the team has gotten better on the ice.

He did not create this mess, he simply purchased it.

When he bought the Lightning and the lease to the arena for $115-million in 1999, Davidson thought he could break even with the team and make a tidy profit off the building. That may have been a miscalculation.

The Lightning has claimed losses of $38-million in three years. The Forum also finished in the red last year.

Since the team is not inclined to open its financial books for inspection, there is a tendency to appraise these losses skeptically. With an enterprise this large, there are ways to move money around to create the illusion of heavy losses while slipping cash into other pockets.

But Davidson has an ace card. Earlier this year, the Hillsborough County Commission hired an independent consultant to study these finances. The conclusion was Davidson's Palace Sports & Entertainment company lost $21-million between the team and arena last year.

So Davidson is ready to do battle. And the county/city had better be prepared because there is much at stake. It is not simply the potential loss of a pro team, but its impact on the surrounding area near the Forum.

The county has the authority to increase the surcharge (from 75 cents to $3.75 per ticket) because it is coming up short paying the annual bond debt on the arena. The Lightning says the higher surcharge would not only drive away fans, but also keep smaller events from coming to the Forum.

Then there is the tax issue. Palace Sports is challenging a $3.3-million property tax bill, arguing the figure should be closer to $1-million. Essentially, Davidson wants the same sweetheart tax deal the Glazers got at Raymond James Stadium.

A court case on the tax issue is scheduled for March, and the County Commission is expected to take up the surcharge issue soon afterward.

"A lot is going to (be decided) with how things develop over the next three to four months with the city, county and state," Davidson said. "How those developments come up are more crucial than anything else."

Relocation is a valuable hammer and Davidson would be foolish not to eventually wield it for leverage. The Lightning, after all, can be moved if attendance is below 80 percent capacity for consecutive seasons. Attendance has been below 80 percent the past five seasons.

Still, there is no reason to panic. The team is not likely to go anywhere. Davidson, if you recall, wanted control of the Forum more than he wanted the Lightning. If the team is moved, the arena no longer is a valuable property.

Somehow there is a deal to be made. The city and county can figure out creative ways to help the Lightning with revenue streams, be it through tax relief or revisiting parking revenues.

The Lightning, in return, can reassure the county it has no desire to pack up and leave by removing the attendance loophole in the lease.

It has been a long time since the Lightning gave us reason to care.

Let's hope it is not in vain.

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