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Sears' sales tax break saves money, maybe

Who says tax shelters are only for the rich? Sears customers get their own special break.

Unlike Tampa Bay area competitors such as Rex or Apsco, Sears doesn't charge sales tax on the purchase and installation of dishwashers, toilets or even garage door openers. During a recent visit to the retail giant's store at Tyrone Square Mall, the sales tax gimmick was practically the first thing out of the salesperson's mouth.

So what's the company's secret?

Under Florida sales tax law, Sears tax lawyer Carol Portman explained, a customer who pays for the purchase and installation of certain appliances in one transaction is considered to be making a capital improvement to his home.

In such cases, the retailer has two choices: charge the customer sales tax, or don't. If the company doesn't charge sales tax, it must go back and pay sales tax itself on its wholesale purchase of the same appliance. The state treasury gets some money, but not as much.

Apsco co-owner Al Greco acknowledged the appeal of a no-sales-tax policy. "It's a good marketing tool," he said.

But not for Apsco. Too much bookkeeping.

Besides, Greco said, smart customers look at the total cost: purchase price, taxes and delivery. And in many cases, he said, Sears charges more.

_ SCOTT BARANCIK

Just forget Digital Lightwave's peak stock price

How much faith does Digital Lightwave have that its stock will rebound any time soon?

Perhaps not that much if you consider the options granted its acting chief financial officer, Joseph Ebner.

Ebner, the controller of the troubled Clearwater tech company, took on the extra duties after the resignation of Mark Scott last month. According to a regulatory filing last week, Ebner was given 65,000 options, 50,000 of which have a strike price of $1.42 a share.

In other words, Ebner will make a profit as long as Digital's sub-dollar stock price moves up just slightly. The remaining 15,000 options have a strike price of $4.83.

The options are exercisable in a three-year period of equal annual installments. So if stock in the troubled Clearwater tech company manages to soar above $4 a share in the next couple of years, Ebner could make more than $100,000.

Of course, if the acting CFO wants to really dream big he could imagine Digital's heyday in 2000, when its stock briefly peaked at $150 a share. These days that would translate to Ebner pocketing just shy of $10-million.

_ JEFF HARRINGTON

Trading on a trademarked name

In a talk last week to Tampa's Internet Business Association International, intellectual property lawyer Anton Hopen targeted the best and worst trademarks in the Tampa Bay area.

His pick for best: Outback Steakhouse Inc., which has registered more than 60 uses of the Outback name for everything from clothing to beer to lemonade to sporting competitions. And, oh yes, for restaurant services as well.

"Their trademark registration is highly comprehensive," said Hopen, whose practice is in Clearwater. "They have a clear legal strategy."

And the worst local trademark? "I'm sorry, but it has to be the Internet Business Association," Hopen said, criticizing the group's name as a mishmash of generic terms that would be impossible to register as a trademark.

He was less critical of the group's acronym, IBAii. "That is registrable because it's arbitrary and unique," he said. "Of course, you'll probably want me to do it for you pro bono."

_ KRIS HUNDLEY

AstroTurf still alive, with offshoots

Reports of the demise of AstroTurf, it would seem, are greatly exaggerated.

After industry publication Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal reported recently that the most famous of artificial turfs would be phased out, the company that makes the imitation grass dismissed the notion on its Web site.

Calling the report that AstroTurf "would be retired" a misrepresentation, the Texas company, SRI Sports, said, "The legendary synthetic turf is still alive and going strong."

But many sports teams have deserted the green carpet that has been hailed as a great invention and derided as aesthetically offensive since it made its professional sports debut in Houston's Astrodome in 1966.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for one, switched to a product called Fieldturf before the 2000 season. Why?

"Basically, it was the latest technology," Rays public relations manager Rick Vaughn said. "It was far better than anything that was offered in the past."

While AstroTurf remains a marquee name for SRI Sports, which recently consolidated seven companies and 51 brands under one name, clearly the company is evolving as well.

Its other products include AstroPlay synthetic turf, AstroGrass, stabilized natural grass and AstroLawn, a home product, the promised benefits of which are: "No watering, no fertilizing, no mowing and no mud involved!"

_ ALICIA CALDWELL

Banking on capital cooperation

Florida bankers are getting used to having their way in Washington.

First, they persuaded the IRS to drop a tax change for nonresident aliens, arguing it could have led to the loss of up to $34-billion in deposits statewide.

Then last week, in a major victory, they helped persuade federal immigration officials to withdraw plans to impose a 30-day limit on the time international visitors can stay in the United States.

As part of the lobbying, Gov. Jeb Bush pointed out that the state's tax base relies on its foreign friends. In 2000, for example, about 8-million international visitors spent nearly $5.5-billion, generating more than $500-million in sales tax revenue.

Alex Sanchez, executive director of the Florida Bankers Association, credited the favorable decision in no small part to intense lobbying by his members. The bankers met in Washington with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Treasury Department during the past two weeks.

"We really carried the water in Florida," Sanchez said. "I don't think a lot of other states really cared about this, although quite frankly they should have."

_ JEFF HARRINGTON

Makeover for Miami's image

Ever since Jackie Gleason's heyday, Miami's tourism business has been about celebrity name-dropping and the photogenic city's role as the site of popular TV shows.

CSI: Miami and Good Morning Miami are holding up TV's end of the bargain these days, but Miami's celebrity Q-rating has been on a bit of a slide in recent years.

The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau has come up with a less conventional answer. It's paying IMG World, the powerful sports and talent agency, $150,000 to polish Miami's A-list image. With such notables in its stable as super models Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, golf star Tiger Woods and tennis' Williams sisters, IMG is dreaming up new Miami events that can attract celebrity appearances. The convention bureau considers the payment seed money rather than a retainer.

IMG is no stranger to the event-staging biz. It produces New York's Fashion Week, promotes 176 golf tournaments and says it has raised more than $100-million in sponsorships for the ATP Men's Tennis Tour.

"Much of the Miami brand image is tied to the city being fashionable, hip and trendy," said David Whitaker, a University of South Florida graduate who is senior vice president of marketing for the Miami convention bureau. "We're a playground for celebrities. We take advantage of that by positioning ourselves as a place people aspire to visit."

IMG is a familiar name in the Tampa Bay area, which has a decidedly more middle-class tourist image.

The company owned the failed Kash n' Karry Grand Prix, a street race in downtown St. Petersburg that recently resurfaced with new owners. IMG also acquired the starmaking Nick Bollittieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, which is being expanded into a sports academy that grooms prospective basketball, hockey, baseball and golf pros.

_ MARK ALBRIGHT

Bay area's place at the training table

The Tampa Bay area has quietly become the center of a different type of spring training.

All six NFL Europe pro football teams are staging their month of preseason practices at high schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

With such names as the Amsterdam Admirals, the Barcelona Dragons and the Frankfurt Galaxy, NFL Europe has become a developmental league for the NFL. This year 13 former Florida college players and five prospects allocated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the rosters.

As part of the deal, the European teams buy NFL-quality training equipment, and the high schools where they train get to keep it for their own teams. Practices and intraleague scrimmages are free and open to the public. Schedules are available on the Web at nfleurope.com.

The local tourist industry is trying to stimulate relationships between the teams and local schools where they play. In Dunedin, which has long promoted its links to Scotland, a local school band greeted the Scottish Claymores with bagpipes and kilts at a recent scrimmage.

Each team spends about $250,000 and occupies up to 40 rooms in local hotels for a month.

"One place the hotels do particularly well is in food and beverage," said John Giantonio, sports director for the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They provide a training table buffet based on each player eating 1{ times the normal portion. These guys eat a lot."

_ MARK ALBRIGHT

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