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Deals make a relocation from Tampa unlikely.
Published Aug. 9, 2007

The announced sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday caught local government officials by surprise and spawned some anxiety.

But they say the sale shouldn't have any effect on the new ownership group's ability to move the team to another city and abandon the taxpayer-subsidized St. Pete Times Forum.

"When we negotiated those agreements, it was with the thought that ... if there were a successor corporation or a sale that the new owner would assume the existing obligations that the prior owner had," said Mike Merrill, director of debt management for Hillsborough County government.

Hillsborough County owns the Times Forum. Tax money, largely sales and tourist taxes, covers debt payments on roughly $84-million in loans that helped pay for construction in 1996. Prior team owners picked up the balance on the $153-million tab.

The hockey team leases the building, oversees operations and makes all profits from ticket sales and concessions. But current owner Palace Sports & Entertainment says it has lost millions annually - except for the year the Lightning won the Stanley Cup - even though the arena is one of the most popular venues in the country.

Unlike other pro sports teams in the region that use publicly owned arenas, the Lightning has had the ability to break its lease with little penalty. So county officials in recent years have sought to entice a firmer commitment in exchange for further subsidies.

About two years ago, the county took ownership of the building, getting rid of its property tax bill and giving the Lightning savings that began at $630,000 a year. In exchange, the Lightning said it would repay a portion of that if the team relocated within 10 years.

Last year, county commissioners set aside an additional $35-million in tourist taxes for the Lightning to renovate the Times Forum. If the team uses any of the money, it must commit to stay in Tampa until 2010 and repay much of what it spends if it pulls out before 2015.

Coincidentally or not, Palace Sports officials submitted their first application for about $5-million on Friday.

"I'm so glad we got that through," said County Commissioner Jim Norman. "It's the only thing we've got that locks them in."

Lightning officials have been unsuccessfully seeking to raise parking fees on city-owned lots by the arena for proceeds. Doug MacLean, chairman of the new ownership group Absolute Hockey Enterprises, said he didn't know whether the team would keep pushing the issue.

In a statement about the sale, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said the city would "do all we can as a partner to ensure their future."

City Council member Mary Mulhern said the team does seem to have a parking problem.

"If there's some way the city could work with them so it could benefit both of us, that's something we should look at," she said.

Council member Charlie Miranda was less accommodating:

"They've got to do their own due diligence and don't look at the city as a revenue-producing source to meet their obligations."