NEW TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan said he thought it would be a unanimous vote — a slam dunk.
He told fellow commissioners about a proposal to use county-owned land for a performing arts center in New Tampa. But Hagan’s counterparts wondered about a financial commitment from the city of Tampa, since the site was inside the city limits, and the possibility of perpetual government subsidies.
“It makes absolutely no fiscal sense,” countered another commissioner. “How can a board say it’s fiscally conservative and do this?”
That conversation came in summer 2004. The commissioner casting the most doubt was the late Jan Platt.
Seventeen years later, Hagan still is championing a performing arts proposal for that same land in New Tampa.
“I’m used to government moving slow, but even for government this has taken longer than usual,” Hagan said this week.
But the project still hears the same questions, though from different commissioners, about city participation and long-term costs to the public. Plus, the proposal now faces additional scrutiny over prior land deals and potential management of the facility by an out-of-county agency.
“It has a history of spending that has not been a good deal for the taxpayers. I don’t want to be sending good money after bad,” Commissioner Mariella Smith told the Tampa Bay Times.
Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners will consider whether to award a $7.3 million construction contract to build a 20,000-square-foot performing arts center off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, directly across from the main entrance to the Hunter’s Green neighborhood. The commission delayed acting four weeks ago, when a majority asked for more details about future operating expenses, whether the city would lend financial assistance and the proposed management by a Manatee County-based entity.
Florida Cultural Group, formerly known as Manatee Players, said it expected to need $1.4 million in subsidies over the next four years with nothing spelled out after 2025. In the business plan submitted to the county, the non-profit group said it expected to require financial assistance for at least seven years.
The planned 350-seat theater is targeted for a weed-covered lot between the rear of a strip shopping center, a complex of four-story apartment buildings and a dog park that last week had a locked gate, preventing public access. The theater site is equipped with utility connections, curbs and an asphalt parking lot, part of a deal with private developers approved in 2014.
Advocates tout the performing arts center as a much-need cultural asset in suburbanized New Tampa, that will bring broader entertainment and educational opportunities for the community. It would become the new home of the New Tampa Players, now headquartered at the Uptown Stage at University Mall.
“It’s going to be an awesome facility,” Hagan said in April.
But, financial questions still linger. Public records show the county’s $8.4 million acquisition of 81 acres in 2004 proved more costly than presented, and fell short on the stated return on investment. More than a dozen years later, the county divested itself of the remaining 13.4 acres of uplands for $1.8 million in cash and improvements valued at nearly $2 million, in a deal with a private developer, Harrison Bennett/Regency. The developer then flipped a portion of the property, now the site of the apartment complex, for $4 million.
“On the face of it, from where I am now,” said Smith, who joined the commission in 2018, “it certainly looks like it was a bad deal for the county. It looks like somebody else made a lot of money at taxpayer expense.”
Hagan, however, says the county obtained $4 million in cash and capital improvements and put the land on the tax rolls. He called it “an extremely successful (public-private partnership) that will be the model in the future. "
Commissioners approved paying $7.5 million for the land, almost half of which was wetlands, in March 2004, even though the two appraisals valued the land at a maximum of $6.1 million. The county offered a premium because the owner, St. Joseph’s Hospital, was a willing seller, allowing the county to avoid the expense of an eminent domain case.
The county needed a portion of the land for drainage and mitigation tied to the expansion of the adjoining Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. County staff told commissioners they could recoup most of the investment by selling the remaining 20 to 25 upland acres, carrying an estimated value of $5.6 million to $7 million.
The county eventually paid $8.44 million, in part, because it added $523,000 to the deal when a survey showed the uplands were 2.5 acres larger than expected.
“We spent more than we needed to at this site,” Bob Gordon, then the county’s public works director, told commissioners in 2004.
Still, plans at the time to declare the unused land as surplus and put it up for sale never materialized.
“That’s when I came in and said, ‘No. We should save this for some type of park in the future,’” Hagan said in a 2017 commission meeting.
Within months of closing on the transaction, and before engineers knew how much land would be needed for drainage, Hagan advocated setting aside some of the excess property for New Tampa Cultural Center, Inc. The non-profit had formed less than three years earlier, and its president said it had $50,000 in the bank. The goal was a community theater of approximately 350 seats.
A leery commission majority went along, but with multiple caveats. The county’s resolution called for mandatory participation from the city of Tampa via a 10-acre land swap or an equivalent cash contribution to the county and a requirement for the Tampa Cultural Center Inc. to raise a $10 million endowment within three years to reduce the need for future government subsidies.
“They were unable to make the numbers work,” Hagan later told the board.
In 2007, the county transferred the 13.4 acres to its parks department and designated it as the New Tampa Community Park. Two years later, the commission agreed to set aside the property for the New Tampa Players, which wanted a theater, and Tampa Bay Sportsplex Inc., which wanted space for ice rinks. That agreement said the two groups had to raise enough money to build a “community cultural center” within five years.
New Tampa, Hagan said then, was missing a community centerpiece and “I feel that we have a real opportunity to create that here without the risk of putting the county in a position to be financially responsible or be on the hook for building or operating of the facilities.”
The five-year fundraising effort proved futile amid a prolonged economic downturn. In 2014, the commission set its sights on a partnership with a private developer. It eventually picked Harrison Bennett’s offer for a little over $2 million in cash and $1.7 million in improvements. The county later discounted the cash price to $1.8 million, saying the improvements — including landscaping, irrigation and parking — were more valuable than the original requirement.
In exchange, Harrison Bennett provided a pad ready site for the theater, a 3-acre dog park, access road and 250 parking spaces. The land it held, fronting Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is now a shopping center anchored by Sprouts Farmers Market. The land it sold for $4 million is the site of the Trail at Hunter’s Lake apartments.
Those financials rankle Commissioner Chairwoman Pat Kemp.
“It was never the intent to have a focus on a performing arts center and dog park. It was always about a $10 million-plus giveaway,” said Kemp. “I think it’s unwise to go forward with this very half-baked, or less, plan.”
“That’s absurd,” said Hagan. “There was no switcheroo.”
The commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday.