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$100M deal proposed to aid downtown Tampa redevelopment

TAMPA — As the value of downtown Tampa real estate has grown since the 1980s, it has generated millions of dollars a year in new property taxes.

But because of a deal that goes back three decades, Hillsborough County officials have watched every penny of their share of that new revenue go to City Hall to aid in downtown's redevelopment.

Now that could change.

While the city would enjoy continuing to get everything, a new city-county proposal could let the county keep most of the money it now contributes to downtown redevelopment. Still, the city and county could work together to put up as much as $50 million each in redevelopment funds, for a total of up to $100 million of financing, to support future downtown projects.

This comes as Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's planned entertainment district, a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium and other big ideas emerge as potential contenders for the money.

"We're excited to be a part of it," Hillsborough County's chief financial administrator Bonnie Wise said this week. "We think that there are going to be some great improvements to the downtown."

That said, the county would end up keeping tens of millions of dollars under the proposal that it could spend in other parts of Hillsborough as well.

With the downtown Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, scheduled to expire, Tampa and Hillsborough officials have spent about a year in on-and-off negotiations to extend it.

Briefly, here's their proposal:

• Extend the CRA until 2043.

• Limit the county's total contribution to the area over those 28 years to $52 million. Of that, up to $50 million would be pledged to provide public infrastructure for one or more private downtown development projects.

• Tie that pledge — it could be $50 million, it could be less — to a redevelopment project agreement with City Hall, which would match the county's contribution.

• Give the county an out: If the two governments didn't enter into a redevelopment project agreement, the county would keep all of its share of the CRA funds. The proposed target date for drafting that agreement is May.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn would love to keep the historic split of the CRA funds — all for the city, none for the county — but recognizes that's "not going to happen."

"If you look at all the facets of it, it's the best deal for both the city and the county that could have been crafted," Buckhorn said. "I think that will provide seed money moving forward for the next 30 years that will allow us to do a lot more."

The proposed CRA changes come at a critical time. That's because of all the projects poised to jockey for a share of future CRA revenues, currently totalling more than $15 million a year.

Three years ago, for example, Buckhorn said the CRA funds could, in theory, be spent on roads and infrastructure for a new downtown Tampa stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

That's still possible, but these days Buckhorn first mentions Vinik's plans to create an entertainment and office district — including, maybe, a new medical school for the University of South Florida — on 24 acres he's bought around Amalie Arena.

Buckhorn expects Vinik's master plan will be "certainly the first one out of the box" for consideration of roads, drainage and other infrastructure projects paid for by CRA funds.

"What will happen (with Vinik's property) is probably going to come to us sooner than any other project — sooner than transit, sooner than any discussion of baseball," Buckhorn said.

"I think they're ready to go," he said of Vinik's development team. "Once they lay out the master plan, they're going to have a feel for what their needs are, where the county and the city can be helpful. Out of that will come an opportunity."

By law, CRA funds must be spent in the area where they are generated. They also are restricted to certain uses, including building or realigning roads, improving drainage, water and sewer, providing parking, landscaping or doing other infrastructure projects needed to facilitate private development.

City officials have had conversations about doing this kind of infrastructure work in conjunction with Vinik's master development, but there's no formal agreement, said Bob McDonaugh, Buckhorn's top economic development aide.

"When there's an event at the arena, we have a form of gridlock," McDonaugh said. "If there's going to be more development, it would behoove us to make some improvements in the roadways down there."

Vinik's properties, except for the Channelside Bay Plaza shopping center, are within the downtown CRA, which goes as far east as Meridian Avenue.

The County Commission could consider the proposed CRA extension as soon as next week. Over the 28 years of the extension, Hillsborough officials estimate — conservatively, they say — that the county could end up keeping at least $280 million that it now gives away.

The City Council, which sits as Tampa's Community Redevelopment Agency, would consider the proposal after county approval.

Meanwhile, even beyond Vinik's project or a baseball stadium, officials say there's no shortage of other ideas for the downtown CRA:

• Mass transit.

• Renovations to the Tampa Convention Center.

• Downtown pocket parks.

• Downtown residents want an end to CSX trains blasting their horns in the middle of the night, but to create a "quiet zone" the city would first need to add traffic safety features at a cost of up to $285,000 per railway crossing.

• The City Council has talked about using CRA funds for cultural projects such as renovations to the Tampa Theatre or the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

• Officials have discussed turning fast-moving, one-way streets like Florida Avenue into more pedestrian-friendly two-way streets.

"I can sit here and in five minutes think of 10 things in the future that are going to need to be done," McDonaugh said. "Some of them, the county might go, 'That's a great idea. Enjoy yourself.' And some of them they might say, 'Yeah, we'd be willing to invest money in that.'"

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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