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    Officials worry amphitheater will hurt Times Forum

    Hillsborough officials fear the facility would hurt the taxpayer-supported, cash-strapped St. Pete Times Forum.

    By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 9, 2003

    TAMPA -- A proposal to build an $18-million amphitheater at the Florida State Fairgrounds is generating concern among politicians and the business community.

    Clear Channel Entertainment, owner of radio stations and concert venues nationwide, says the facility would accommodate up to 20,000 people, and host as many as 35 shows annually.

    That prospect worries some members of the Hillsborough County Commission, who said Wednesday that an amphitheater could hurt business at the taxpayer-subsidized and cash-strapped St. Pete Times Forum.

    "I'm happy for everybody to have another profitable venue, but I'm not sure it won't cause harm to a lot of people, including the county," said Commissioner Jim Norman.

    Commissioners ultimately voted 4 to 3 to ask the county administrator to determine the potential effect of a new concert site on ticket sales at the Times Forum. But even if the projections are dire, there is little commissioners can do.

    The project appears to be permissible under existing zoning rules, though Clear Channel must prove it will not violate county noise restrictions. The Fair Authority still must give its approval, but it wants the amphitheater opened by February 2004, the 100th anniversary of the Florida State Fair.

    Downtown tourism promoters are worried that concerts held in east Hillsborough will worsen an already troubled financial picture for the Times Forum. They also are concerned the venue could eat into hotel and restaurant business downtown.

    "We're concerned due to the number of current downtown visitors that would be diverted to this facility," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which promotes businesses downtown.

    Gene Gray, the county's economic development director, estimated that the amphitheater could cut concert business at the Times Forum by 15 to 40 percent.

    Commissioners already are grappling with whether to sharply increase a surcharge on tickets at the Times Forum. The current surcharge is supposed to help pay off part of the bonds sold to finance construction of the arena, but is falling far short.

    At the same time, commissioners also are concerned that Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns the money-losing Tampa Bay Lightning and operation rights to the Times Forum, will leave town.

    Norman proposed having the board ask the Fair Authority to delay a decision for six months so a more thorough analysis could be done.

    But other commissioners noted that they have no say in the matter, since the amphitheater deal is between a private business and the Fair Authority.

    "This board is repeatedly criticized about getting in the middle of things it has no part in," said Commissioner Jan Platt. "This is a classic example of that."

    Commissioners ultimately decided to have their administration analyze the deal and report back to them within two months.

    By then, a deal likely already will have been sealed by the Fair Authority.

    Randall A. Young, president of real estate for Clear Channel, which has exclusive booking rights to 98 entertainment venues across the country, said Tampa is the only major city other than Minneapolis, Minn., without an amphitheater.

    Most such open-air venues co-exist fine with enclosed entertainment sites such as the Times Forum, Young said.

    "It's remarkable that Tampa doesn't already have one," he said.

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