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  1. Opinion

Ruth: How to pitch transit by pushing sports

Eureka! At last, I have finally figured out a way to solve our long-standing transportation thing. It will involve just a pinch of deception.

The Hillsborough County Commission has voted to select the contractor who will develop a massive sports complex near Falkenburg Road and U.S. 301. It will be huuuuge, with 16 soccer fields, snazzy lighting, spaces for 1,200 cars, accommodations for locker rooms and food trucks. It's gonna be the cat's pajamas for jocks — all for $12.9 million. Such a deal.

Plans for the public sports complex have been in the works for years, a project that got sidetracked by the recession. But the dream never died.

In Hillsborough County, if you want something done, eventually the magic happens — especially if it involves balls and whistles and referees and scoreboards and sports-obsessed county commissioners.

It also didn't hurt that the sports complex was the pet project of Commissioner Ken Hagan. Sinkholes could be swallowing Hillsborough County and a plague of locusts could be snatching children off the street, and not so much as a bus token would be set aside to deal with the crisis if it would mean diverting money from the Ken Hagan Coliseum of Sweat.

The theory is the sports complex will result in a pile-driving explosion of economic impact as bazillions of children and their families descend on the Ken Hagan Stadium of Perspiration to run and kick their way to glory, as parents check into hotels and spend oodles of money.

And that brings us to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is developing the $2 billion, 40-acre Grand Duchy of Vinikphalia in downtown Tampa.

About the same time the Hillsborough County Commission was fawning over its vision for a dazzling youth sports complex attracting events like Little League championships, international soccer tournaments and perhaps the world tiddlywinks finals, Vinik was participating in a panel sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

During the session, the mogul opined that while his plans for the Vinikpalooza move forward, efforts to attract substantial corporate investment might be stymied for want of a coherent transportation system.

Vinik praised an improved education system in the region and the state, a critical component for companies considering a move to the Tampa Bay region. "We're on our way to being a superpower in the U.S.," Vinik observed. "What's absent is a proper plan for transportation."

Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, you poor thing. You simply haven't lived here quite long enough to appreciate that the eyes of the power brokers glaze over whenever the subject of improving transportation arises. Isn't that why God created cement, after all?

A very smart man comes to town, almost single-handedly takes on the task of rebuilding Tampa's downtown and is hailed as a visionary without peer. But when that same man suggests a massive overhaul of the city's transit infrastructure needs to occur to truly make Tampa a world-class city, he will be ignored.

Unless ...

Vinik has approached the transportation discussion entirely wrong by couching it in terms of a transportation discussion. Mr. Vinik, this is a sports-addicted village. Don't speak of roads, or rail.

Rather, present the need for light rail as an easier way to get to football, or hockey, or to Ken Hagan's Amphitheater of Abs. Don't equate roads with commuting or commerce but rather a way to make it easier to buy $10 beers at a game of whatever.

And it will work. After all, the county commission is about to spend nearly $13 million to build a sports complex complete with a Harry Potter quidditch pitch. This is Hillsborough County, a place that will always be a sucker for Ken Hagan's Field of Schemes.

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