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Stadium tax helped pay for Bucs' success

So, how do we feel about the stadium deal now?

Now that the Bucs are in the Super Bowl, how do we feel about the $168-million gift to build Raymond James Stadium, the sweetheart lease that gave Malcolm Glazer the keys to the facility, the financing plan that saddled Hillsborough taxpayers with a half-cent sales tax for 30 years?

Joe Chillura, the county commissioner who wrote the blueprint and ballot language for the so-called Community Investment Tax to build the stadium, is feeling vindicated, even if the tax plan did kill him politically.

"The stadium deal didn't put meat and potatoes on the table," said Chillura. "But it has brought a sense of community to this area I've never seen before.

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"I think everybody in life just wants to be a contender," Chillura added. "Now, we are a contender, and everybody is part of it. How do you measure that?"

Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate Charlie Miranda appreciates the current elation over the Bucs, but still believes the stadium deal was a mistake.

"The euphoria will pass," said Miranda. "You have it for a year or two. But your debt service is with you for 30 years."

Over that time, taxpayers will shell out an estimated $3.47-billion. Most of the money will actually pay for public works projects, with only 8 percent of the total going for the stadium.

Chillura thinks everybody ended up a winner.

County taxpayers get new high schools, fire stations, roads and drainage improvements. Glazer got a new stadium and now owns an NFL franchise Forbes magazine says is worth $606-million.

It was all accomplished with the Community Investment Tax, a last-ditch invention to keep the Bucs from leaving town after Glazer bought the team in 1995 following the death of the Bucs' original owner, Hugh Culverhouse Sr.

A tightfisted tax attorney, Culverhouse bought the expansion club for a song, $16-million, and spent sparingly on team personnel. He channeled profits from the Bucs into investments that grew to an estate valued at $381-million.

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Because of his low carrying costs, Culverhouse was content to see the Bucs play in old Tampa Stadium, a concrete anachronism nicknamed the "Big Sombrero." It featured cramped aluminum bench seats, zero amenities and 59 skyboxes affixed to the top of the stadium, just above the nosebleed sections.

After Glazer paid a record $192-million for the Bucs, he insisted he needed a fancier facility to help pay the freight.

Initially, the Palm Beach businessman offered to pay for half the new stadium, which he said was "taking the shirts off our backs." His generous pledge was predicated on the sale of 50,000 seat deposits, licenses priced from $190 to $2,450 that permitted the purchase of Bucs season tickets. But the campaign fell short by more than 17,000 seat deposits.

Alternate plans for a tax on restaurants, rental cars, cigarettes and alcohol bogged down. The Glazers threatened to move the Bucs to Baltimore, Los Angeles, Hartford or Osceola County.

Chillura's brainchild, the Community Investment Tax, saved the day. It was a 30-year, half-cent sales tax that would pay for badly needed roads, schools and police equipment, as well as a state-of-the-art football stadium.

Some saw the plan as a Trojan Horse. Chillura looked at it as "a pie, where everybody eats." In September 1996, voters approved the tax by 53 percent to 47 percent.

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There was an intriguing antecedent to the vote. In 1995, with no stadium question on the ballot, local voters overwhelmingly turned down a pair of half-cent sales taxes to finance new schools and police needs. The specter of school double sessions and jail overcrowding would not disappear until a year later, when the the Community Investment Tax votes were counted.

When that vote count was in, Chillura told Glazer, "Okay, we got you a stadium. Now, get us a Super Bowl."

Glazer never contributed a dime to the new stadium. But he began to pay more for players with revenues from a sweetheart stadium lease.

The Bucs now pay rent of $3.5-million a year, and the Tampa Sports Authority picks up the tab for operating the facility. Glazer keeps all revenue from tickets, concessions, advertising, parking, naming rights and 195 luxury suites, some costing as much as $165,000 a year.

Bill Poe, an insurance executive and Tampa mayor when the Bucs started 0-26, still thinks the public got the short end of the stick in the stadium deal. In 1997, he spent $750,000 of his own money challenging the deal before the Florida Supreme Court ruled against him.

"There is a positive value to owning a franchise because the average person can relate to the entertainment value and take pride in having a winner," Poe said this week. "But that doesn't change the fact that the public got a terrible deal with the Glazers. I just don't think people understand the economics of it."

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For the Bucs, here's how the altered state of the team's stadium economics has worked out:

In the final year at the Big Sombrero, the team saw profits of $7-million. At RayJay in 2001, the Bucs made $31.4-million.

In 1994, the year Culverhouse died, the Bucs payroll was $35.8-million. Only six players made $1-million a year or more. The team went 6-10.

This year, as the Bucs prepare to play in the Super Bowl with a franchise-best record of 14-4, the payroll is $65.3-million, and the average player salary is $1.16-million.

So, were all those stadium tax dollars worth it?

Give Hugh Culverhosue Jr., a lawyer whose father first owned the Bucs, the last word.

"Is there any logical way to justify that tax money?" he asks. "Of course not.

"In many ways, we are still a feudal society, where every town wants to have the biggest castle and wants to conquer the next town over. People are happy to pay a lot of money to do that.

"When you think about it," mused Culverhouse, "We're not far removed from the 11th century."

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

So, how do we feel about the stadium deal now?

Now that the Bucs are in the Super Bowl, how do we feel about the $168-million gift to build Raymond James Stadium, the sweetheart lease that gave Malcolm Glazer the keys to the facility, the financing plan that saddled Hillsborough taxpayers with a half-cent sales tax for 30 years?

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