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Raymond James Stadium renovation deal a mixed bag for Hillsborough taxpayers

Wednesday, Dec 23, 2015

From the taxpayer's perspective, here's the best that can be said about the deal between the Tampa Sports Authority and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to renovate Raymond James Stadium.

It makes a lopsided arrangement slightly less lopsided.

The pact — approved last week by the TSA board, the Hillsborough County Commission and the Tampa City Council — not only paves the way for an ambitious upgrade of the 17-year-old stadium, but also makes several important tweaks to the original 1996 agreement to build and lease Raymond James.

Those contractual concessions could save taxpayers money in the long run. But they come at a price: The public will pay $29 million out of the planned $87 million renovation.

"This project is going to mean something different for everyone," said Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford, "but at the end of the day it's going to enhance (Raymond James Stadium.)"

Of that $29 million, the TSA was already required to pay $26 million in maintenance and repairs under the 1996 deal — the one the county signed with the Bucs and its owners, the Glazer family, that local leaders maligned before the ink was dry.

Under that deal, the TSA (and thus the taxpayers) had to pay to keep Raymond James "in accordance with the generally applicable industry standards for maintenance and upkeep of NFL Stadiums . . . ." That can amount to millions in capital improvements. Meanwhile, the team got nearly all the revenue from ticket sales, stadium advertising and parking in exchange for $3.5 million a year in rent.

The parameters of that deal were so tilted toward the Glazers that the TSA actually saves a quarter million dollars when the Bucs play home games in London, like in 2009 and 2011.

The new deal won't dramatically change that dynamic. Such is the case when you're negotiating from the shadow of your own goal posts.

"The original agreement is a bad deal for the taxpayers," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who also serves on the TSA board. "Without question, it's a sweetheart agreement for the team."

He added: "There are no mulligans."

However, advocates of the new deal, including Hagan, say it will do more for the community in the long run.

They say renovations, including state-of-the-art scoreboards and video screens and upgrades to the concourses, concessions and luxury boxes, will put the stadium on course to host big-name concerts, NCAA postseason football games and — the big prize driving many of these changes — a Super Bowl. Those events have the potential to bring in serious tourism dollars and put the bay area in the national spotlight.

There is also optimism that the new pact signals the Bucs' long-term commitment to Tampa by agreeing to pay $58 million of team money — and potentially another $13 million — to improve Ray Jay.

Under the existing deal, the team has little obligation to spend any money to upgrade the stadium.

Whether $100 million in upgrades is enough to attract another Super Bowl will be tested over the coming months when the NFL's 32 owners will decide a host city for the big game in 2019 and 2020. Tampa is a finalist along with Miami, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Those teams have made significant and costly overhauls of their own stadiums — also in the hopes of attracting a Super Bowl.

"The competition is fierce," Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins told the Tampa City Council on Dec. 17 in his pitch to pass the deal. The council passed it 6-1.

The Atlanta Falcons will open a brand new stadium in 2017 expected to cost upward of $1 billion. Some have said the team is a lock to host in 2019 or 2020.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross spent $400 million to enhance Sun Life Stadium. New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome has seen $336 million in renovations since Hurricane Katrina. And both South Florida and New Orleans have each hosted 10 Super Bowls apiece, the most of any city.

"A world-class stadium is among the key elements that ownership considers during the selection process," said NFL vice president for communications Brian McCarthy. "Improvements to amenities for fans, technological advancements and the overall fan experience are all important factors."

The upgrades to Raymond James will come at a cost to taxpayers. The TSA agreed to put $3 million more toward the renovation than the $26 million required for maintenance under the 1996 agreement to help pay for bigger scoreboards than were previously planned. In exchange, the Bucs agreed to give the TSA a larger share of profits from other events, like concerts and monster truck rallies, that could net taxpayers $150,000 to $250,000 yearly.

The team also forgave the TSA's requirements to build the team an $11.6 million practice facility. The Bucs already built their own facility but until now would not release the county from that old obligation.

Proponents also point out that the TSA's portion of the new deal doesn't come from property taxes. It will come from tourism tax dollars collected on hotel bookings.

And if the agreement hadn't passed, the TSA would still be on the hook for $26 million in maintenance — and the Bucs wouldn't have to pay anything.

"In case you forgot, we own Raymond James stadium," Hagan told his fellow commissioners on Dec. 16, before the agreement passed 6-1. "We have a vested interest to keep this stadium state of the art.

"One thing is certain: Without modern improvements our community will never compete for these events."

But detractors question why an NFL franchise — estimated by Forbes Magazine to be worth about $1.5 billion — needs that extra $3 million from taxpayers.

"Plain and simply, we left money on the table in the deal," Commissioner Stacy White said. White was one of just three officials from the TSA, County Commission and City Council to vote against the deal.

White also joined the chorus of critics confused why a new deal didn't include an extension of the lease that would guarantee the Bucs remain at Raymond James Stadium beyond the current deal's expiration date of 2028.

But ever since the renovation negotiations started in January, the Buccaneers have said that a lease extension was a nonstarter.

"At this point we're only midway through the contract and it's not really the time, we felt, (to extend it)," Ford said after the City Council vote.

But the Bucs COO added that the team's contribution to the project signaled a "commitment that we have to the community and to Raymond James Stadium."

In addition to the $58 million for the renovation project, the team spent $9 million last year to improve stadium concessions. Prior to that, the Bucs had never paid for capital improvements to the publicly financed stadium. A contentious sales tax hike approved by voters in 1996 funded the construction of Raymond James.

"Having the Bucs put some skin in the game is extremely important strategically to make sure the Buccaneers remain steadfastly committed to Tampa," TSA board member Don DeFosset said before that body passed the deal 10-1 on Dec. 15.

Not everyone agrees with that. City Council member Charlie Miranda, who opposed the original 1996 agreement, said the Bucs could still threaten to leave Tampa for another market, just as they did in the 1990s.

The Bucs could seek even more upgrades, Miranda said, or even a new stadium after 2028.

That's not without precedent. In 2000, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos shocked the city when he said the team needed a new home three years after taxpayers funded an expansion of Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers are now threatening to leave San Diego for Los Angeles.

"What I said 20 years ago, it's all coming true," Miranda said. "There will be a day when they don't play any games in that stadium and they'll still make money. If not, they'll look for other communities to take advantage of."

 

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