Is Tampa ‘jumping ship’ on Straz Center’s $25 million expansion request?

The arts center wants the city’s Downtown Community Redevelopment Area to help pay for its $100 million expansion, but ambivalence at City Hall had grown recently.
A planned $100 million fundraising campaign by the Straz Center for the Performing Arts hinges on a $25 million city contribution. But some Tampa officials have recently signaled their ambivalence over the size of the request.
A planned $100 million fundraising campaign by the Straz Center for the Performing Arts hinges on a $25 million city contribution. But some Tampa officials have recently signaled their ambivalence over the size of the request. [ ROB HARRIS | Courtesy of Rob Harris ]
Published Sept. 9, 2021|Updated Sept. 9, 2021

TAMPA — A request from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts for $25 million in city money isn’t moving forward — at least for now.

City Council members, sitting as board members of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, approved Thursday a last-minute request by Straz officials to delay their request for a month.

Council members Bill Carlson and Guido Maniscalco voted against pushing consideration back by a month.

News that the city wasn’t fully on board with the Straz’s request sent “shock waves throughout the arts community” and sets a “very dangerous precedent for us to make this change,” Carlson said.

Council member Luis Viera voiced his opposition Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times about the size of the request. Mayor Jane Castor, who doesn’t have a vote on Community Redevelopment Agency matters, also told the newspaper she believed the amount of city support should be on the table.

Back in January, it was a different story when officials from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts presented a proposal to City Council members for the city’s Downtown Community Redevelopment Area to provide $25 million to help fund the art center’s expansion plans.

The five City Council members who were present then — Viera and Charlie Miranda were absent — didn’t raise any strong objections. Several sung the praises of the project.

Related: Tampa poised to funnel $25 million to Straz Center

Now, it’s budget crunch time, and a lot of competing needs have surfaced. And so has the Straz’s timeline, at least for city funding.

Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi said late Wednesday that her non-profit will pull its $5 million request for fiscal year 2022 as the two sides continue to talk.

Council member John Dingfelder, who is the council member designated to sit on the Straz board, said the $25 million request wasn’t new. He said he was concerned about the late-forming opposition to the measure.

“It disturbs me that we might be jumping ship,” Dingfelder said at Thursday’s meeting.

City Council acts as the board of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, with final say over tax revenue collected within the boundaries of the city’s eight redevelopment areas.

The Straz’s $100 million fundraising campaign to expand the center wasn’t slated to get underway until fiscal year 2023 anyway, Lisi said. The delay will give the city and the organization more time to “get it right.”

Judy Lisi, President and Chief Executive Officer, Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Judy Lisi, President and Chief Executive Officer, Straz Center for the Performing Arts. [ Photo: Courtesy Rob-Harris Productions, Inc. ]

But Lisi said her hope is that the city and county will eventually agree to shoulder half of the price tag — about $50 million in capital costs.

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“A couple of things came up that we weren’t sure we were ready for,” said Lisi, explaining the month’s delay.

Deputy City Attorney Morris Massey said Straz officials didn’t give a reason for the request for a delay, which will be taken up again by council members on Oct. 14.

Lisi said before the meeting she hoped the delay wouldn’t affect the city’s commitment to the project. The $25 million in city support will attract more support from Hillsborough County commissioners and the private sector, she said.

County officials have told her that they want the city to demonstrate its commitment first, Lisi said. And private donors, she added, want to see a city commitment toward its own buildings before they open their checkbooks.

County commissioners, led by Harry Cohen, recently gave $2 million as a “kickstart,” to the Straz, Lisi said.

In order for the Straz to meet its costs, the county would have to kick in $23 million more, matched by the city’s $25 million.

“Our hope is that it stays $25 million, honestly, because it’s a big project,” Lisi said of the city’s commitment.

This week, concerns about the size of the Straz’s request —spread out over five years — began to surface around City Hall.

Viera, who missed the January meeting, said he wasn’t going to vote for $25 million in city funds, calling it “excessive.”

“What we could spend it on in downtown Tampa? Imagine — we could spend funds to improve the streetcar. We could spend these funds on affordable downtown housing. We have Curtis Hixon. Imagine what these funds could do to renovate that playground, to include disability accessible equipment. Or sidewalks all throughout Franklin Street,” Viera told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday. “There are so many things we can do with that money.”

Castor doesn’t have a seat on the Community Redevelopment Agency board, but the mayor noted the Straz’s original request was for $15 million when she met with their staff late last year.

The Straz Center is one of the best performing arts centers in the country, and the arts are essential for the city’s future, she said.

But, in Castor’s opinion, the percentage paid by the city, Hillsborough County and private donors isn’t etched in stone.

“I support their expansion plan. How that’s paid for and over what period of time? I think that could be up for debate,” Castor said.

The Straz’s fundraising campaign would pay for more event space, remake the Riverwalk and Tyler Street approaches to the facility, expand its cultural offerings and keep the arts center at the forefront of Florida’s cultural institutions.

It would “open the doors’” of the Straz to the community and help keep the center as a hub of the region’s cultural life, Lisi said.

Free and affordable events would be a big part of the new Straz experience, she said, so “it’s not just ticket holders” that benefit from the center’s offerings, she said.

The money would come from tax revenue generated within the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

Community Redevelopment Director Michelle Van Loan said in January that the agency had budgeted $5 million for three years already, but would have to do a financial analysis to determine if the downtown area would generate enough tax revenue for the larger Straz request.

She estimated total revenue for the Downtown Redevelopment Area to be in the neighborhood of $9 million to $10 million per year over the next five years.

Lisi noted that other publicly-owned facilities like Amalie Arena, Raymond James Stadium and the Convention Center have received public money in recent years. The Straz facility also needs an upgrade to “keep it relevant and vital to how we live today,” Lisi said of the facility, which opened in 1987.

Miranda said the Straz was a lifeline to Tampa’s downtown when little else attracted people to a moribund city center.

“The city that doesn’t have a heart is actually dying,” Miranda said.