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Bucks that kept the Bucs

Joe Chillura’s Community Investment Tax built the stadium and raised $2 billion-plus for public works
Joe Chillura poses for a portrait with a “Person of Vision” award, a recognition in 2002 from the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, at his Tampa home on Wednesday, August 25, 2021.
Joe Chillura poses for a portrait with a “Person of Vision” award, a recognition in 2002 from the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, at his Tampa home on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 28

Joe Chillura looks forward to another season of quarterback Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I get the impression that Brady would like to win another one,’’ he says, deadpan.

Chillura may be the key reason the Bucs are not celebrating in some other town. Chillura, a Hillsborough County Commissioner in the 1990s, conceived of the Community Investment Tax, the 30-year, half-penny extra sales tax of 1996, which had generated more than $2.4 billion by last month, according to a county spokesman.

The revenue has gone to schools and other public needs. It also went to building a new stadium, a demand of the Glazer family, the Bucs’ owners. That galvanized a large bloc of citizens opposed to spending public money for such a purpose, but the tax passed 53 percent to 47 percent.

Chillura, 81, a retired architect, had served on Tampa City Council in the early 1970s. He lost a race for U.S. Congress in 1998 when he ran as a Republican against Democrat Jim Davis. Joe Chillura Courthouse Square park, located across from the Hillsborough County Center in downtown Tampa, is named for him.

He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the tax and his time in politics.

Was it your idea to combine public works needs with building the stadium? (The Tampa Sports Authority operates the stadium and leases it to the Bucs.)

Yeah, that was the idea. The school system had tried to float a tax a year earlier and it failed pretty bad, so I thought with all the fanatics in sports, in football, why not combine that with all the other goodies? Because the stadium only had 11 percent of the revenue when it finally passed. We had a fixed cost of $168 million to build the stadium. … Today’s value, a replacement for that stadium would exceed a billion dollars, by the way. … So the taxpayers, even though they voted to tax themselves, got a good deal, in my opinion.

How have the other funds been spent?

The others went to the schools, they went to the sheriff, police, libraries. All the other needs of local government got the bulk of the money over a 30-year period. ...

Here’s something interesting. (Then Tampa Mayor) Dick Greco was with me when we were listening to the returns, and he said, “Let’s get out of here. This thing’s going down.” And I said, “No, I think it’s going to pass, Dick.’’ … So, actually, the sports fans carried the bulk of the money that was used for capital needs in the county and all the three cities (Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace) ... as well as Hillsborough county. So that 11 percent was a good investment.

Joe Chillura poses for a portrait on the patio of his Tampa home on Wednesday, August 25, 2021.
Joe Chillura poses for a portrait on the patio of his Tampa home on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

You’ve said you got the idea when you were having dinner with your family at the old Sweet Tomatoes restaurant, where people could choose from an array of the dishes, some they like and others they don’t.

A light bulb went on. I said, you know what, that concept could fly for a tax where everybody gets a little bit of something, even if they don’t like the other something. They can vote for it because it’s going to give them better schools, better libraries, better police and fire departments, etc. etc. So they can have their cake and eat it, too, so to speak.

What leaders were on board with the tax?

(County Commissioner) Dottie Berger, who is now deceased, was on board. Dick Greco was on board. The three municipalities endorsed it, but no one ever took a forefront position. … I gave the bulk of the speeches on it, and Dick was second. …

I remember calling Tom McEwen (late Tampa Tribune sports editor). I said, “Tom, I’ve got a great idea.’’ And he said, “Man that is a great idea. What are you going to call it?” I said, “We’ll call it a Community Investment Tax,” which I went over with my wife (Mary Helen) at the dinner table. ... And Tom said, “Well, do you have to call it a tax?” And I said, “Tom, it is a tax, a half-penny tax to get a lot of things, and it’s not that big a deal.’’ He said, “Well, okay, but I think calling it a tax isn’t going to fly.’’ …

And fortunately, it passed and gave birth to (hosting) two Super Bowls and a Super Bowl that we won last year, and hopefully we’re going to win again.

The Bucs weren’t doing well when you proposed this tax, right?

They weren’t winning many games and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm, but there was a lot of hope for the team. But there wasn’t much hope when they found out conceivably the team would leave Tampa. …

That sentiment had a lot to do with the passage of the CIT. ... I think it helped, frankly, with the psychology of getting the tax passed.

Do you believe the Community Investment Tax controversy hurt you in the congressional race?

I think it had a bearing on it.

What were other causes you championed?

Modified compact growth was my interest; building a mall in downtown Tampa, the Franklin (Street) Mall; and the Neighborhood Bill of Rights were three things that I pioneered.

On the city council, by the way, what I thought was my most important accomplishment was the Tampa Tree and Landscape Ordinance, which really became a model for the entire southeastern United States.

What’s the Neighborhood Bill of Rights?

That was a concept I came up with that gave neighborhoods the right to be notified if there was anything having to do with government that was going to impact their neighborhood. … They would have the right by notification to know what was going on so they could voice their opinion. …

I think they’re still using the concept. You have to register as a viable neighborhood association and then you get on the mailing list.

You never ran for Tampa mayor

No, I never ran for mayor… When I left city council there was a lot of support for me to do that, but I got a good offer to go to the Middle East with an architectural firm. … I’ve always regretted not running for mayor because I had lot of ideas that I could have implemented. But I worked closely with Dick (Greco). His mother and father were my parents’ best man and lady when my mother and father were married, so our relationship goes way back.