Conventioneers who spend thousands to visit are heading home with an image of Tampa as low-rent, and for that we can thank Hillsborough County commissioners. The board refuses to fix the convention center roof until the city gives millions of dollars in tax breaks to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise. Meanwhile, convention staffers run around with buckets and plastic sheeting to protect out-of-town guests. This is ridiculous.
If the Buccaneers or George Steinbrenner, not the city, owned the center, Commission Chairman Jim Norman might be leaping up to spread the roof cement himself. Norman rammed through a $100-million aid package this summer for the three professional sports teams based in Tampa. The money will come from hotel bed taxes, which is ironic, because the convention center is the single biggest draw in Hillsborough for hotel bookings. The county is endangering the golden goose and hundreds of millions in public and private investment on the waterfront, from new hotels, parking garages and the streetcar to the Channelside entertainment complex.
Commissioner Ken Hagan and others defend bullying the city and point out the $6-million will be available by August regardless. Yet that means many of the 228 conventions, meetings and trade shows next year, expected to pour $100-million into the local economy, must endure another summer rainy season. And people wonder why Tampa didn't win the 2008 Republican National Convention. The cost for the roof is still less than what the commission promised to Legends Field, where the New York Yankees train, even though the county's contract makes the team responsible for repairs there. The city is talking with the Lightning about incentives; if the county wants to facilitate those discussions, fine. But how souring the visit for thousands of people who leave with a bad impression helps the process or taxpayers is beyond comprehension. Just fix the roof.