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Bolts won't go skating off soon

Professional hockey is here to stay in Tampa Bay, for the next few years at least.

A Tampa Bay Lightning official confirmed Friday that the team will apply next week to tap up to $35-million from a pool of tourist tax dollars to pay for renovations at the St. Pete Times Forum, its home.

By doing so, the team locks itself into staying in Tampa for at least four years. And provisions require the team to repay much of the money if it leaves before 2020. That should help ensure that pro hockey is played in Tampa for at least the next decade.

"I'm just thrilled to death," said Hillsborough Commission Chairman Jim Norman, the architect of a proposal to spend up to $70.5-million in tourist tax dollars at Tampa's three main sports venues, the Times Forum, Raymond James Stadium and Legends Field.

Norman and other local officials have expressed concern for years that annual multimillion-dollar losses by the Lightning could prompt its parent company, Palace Sports and Entertainment, to sell or move the team, leaving the county-owned Times Forum without a tenant. That possibility largely prompted Norman's stadium spending proposal, which commissioners approved in July.

Sean Henry, chief operating officer for the Lightning, downplayed that threat Friday. He said the decision to seek permission to spend the county money on the Times Forum came in the past week from team ownership, but was not in doubt.

'A nondecision'

"It was really a nondecision," Henry said. "Of course we'll move forward, because it's good for everyone."

As a side benefit, the decision will allow the city of Tampa to more quickly seek up to $6-million in tourist tax money to repair the Tampa Convention Center air conditioning system and roof, which is leaking. County commissioners, who control how tourist tax dollars are spent, had said the city could not get the money until August 2007 unless it also provided financial help to the Lightning, such as giving the team part of the parking concessions during games and other events.

If approved, the Lightning application to spend tourist dollars frees the city of that obligation. But it may take up to two months for the county to review and grant it, so Tampa will still have to wait for roof repairs.

City Finance Director Bonnie Wise said Tampa is pleased that the stalemate over roof repairs appears to be ending.

People who book hotel rooms in Hillsborough County are charged an extra 5 cent tourist tax for every dollar of their room charge. Part of that money pays off loans that financed the Times Forum, and Raymond James Stadium, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play.

Earlier this year, Norman learned that the tax raised more than was needed to meet the loan obligations. Knowing both arenas need upkeep that property taxpayers might have to pay for, he proposed using the extra money for those needs. He included Legends Field, where the New York Yankees play spring training games, saying it was a question of fairness.

City officials, including Mayor Pam Iorio, protested the idea and sought money for Convention Center roof repairs. Commissioners ultimately relented, earmarking $6-million, with strings attached.

Friday's news made John Moors, director of the Convention Center, happy for two reasons.

"I came from Toronto, so I'm a huge hockey fan," said Moors, who regularly watches the Lightning play. "It's great news that the Lightning are going to draw down on that money so we can be guaranteed they're going to stay in town."

And it means the Convention Center where he works will get a new roof.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan expressed appreciation for the at least "symbolic" commitment by the Lightning to remain in Tampa. But he said he also is concerned that the city will be less inclined now to help the team further to ensure hockey stays in Tampa for good.

"It's safe to say that the Lightning will not be receiving any support from the city any time soon," he said.

City Attorney David Smith said that's not true.

"We're working very hard with the Lightning and we meet with them frequently," he said. "The city is looking at a variety of options to assist the Lightning in closing the financial shortfall they are experiencing."

Henry said the team likely would seek roughly $4.5-million of the $7-million for which it is eligible in the first year of the deal. Some of that money would go toward repaying the cost of renovations and enhancements made this summer to the Times Forum's refrigeration and sound system, and to the XO Club.

The Lightning can seek up to $2-million a year thereafter.

In the next three years, the team anticipates rebuilding the rink refrigeration system and upgrading its video replay screens, Henry said. He said keeping the arena modern is critical to landing premiere sporting and entertainment events.

Under terms of the agreement, the county must approve renovations to the arena. If the Lightning ownership moves the team before 2010, it would be required to repay the county up to $10-million, depending on how much it spends. The repayment obligation would climb to as much as $20-million by 2015.

In the final five years, the Lightning's repayment requirement would begin declining, to $10-million by 2020.

"This is where we are going to be," Henry said. "This was always where we were going to be. We've always said this is the best community for us to be in."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

fast facts

The deal

The Lightning is eligible for up to $35-million in tourist taxes over the next 15 years - up to $7-million the first year, and up to $2-million each year thereafter. By accepting the money, the Lightning agrees to remain in Tampa for at least four years. Depending on how much money the team accepts, it would have to repay up to $10-million if it leaves before 2010, or $20-million if it leaves by 2015, an amount that would then decline by $2-million annually in the final five years.

FAST FACTS

The deal

The Lightning are eligible for up to $35-million in tourist taxes over the next 15 years, up to $7-million the first year, and up to $2-million for each year thereafter. By accepting the money, the Lightning agrees to remain in Tampa for at least four years. Depending on how much money the team accepts, it would be required to repay up to $10-million if it leaves before 2010, $20-million if it leaves by 2015, an amount that would then decline by $2-million annually in the final five years.

The deal: The Lightning are eligible for up to $35-million in tourist taxes over the next 15 years, up to $7-million the first year, and up to $2-million for each year thereafter. By accepting the money, the Lightning agrees to remain in Tampa for at least four years. Depending on how much money the team accepts, it would be required to repay up to $10-million if it leaves before 2010, $20-million if it leaves by 2015, an amount that would then decline by $2-million annually in the final five years.

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