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Greco laments proposal for amphitheater

County commissioners join the mayor in his opposition to Clear Channel Entertainment's plans to build a 20,000-seat, $18-million venue at the fairgrounds.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2003


TAMPA -- Mayor Dick Greco sent a strongly worded letter Wednesday to the Florida State Fair Authority expressing "deep concern" about the potential financial impact a planned amphitheater there will have on downtown, especially the taxpayer-backed St. Pete Times Forum.

Hillsborough commissioners joined him, voting 5-2 to express their own concerns. Like the mayor, they will appeal to the fair authority to delay approval.

They may get their wish, at least for now. Fairgrounds executive director Rick Vymlatil said a contract spelling out the terms of the amphitheater deal was scheduled for discussion at a fair authority meeting on Monday.

But the fair authority has only received a draft of the contract on the 20,000-seat, $18-million venue to be built by Clear Channel Entertainment. With the annual state fair starting today, a vote on the contract may be delayed until March.

But given past discussions by the fair authority, it appears unlikely that its members will go along with a further delay. That board has been discussing the proposal since 2001, and authority members want to have the amphitheater open in time for their 100th anniversary next year.

At its Jan. 22 meeting, authority members agreed in principle with the Tampa Downtown Partnership and Clear Channel -- which would build and operate the amphitheater -- to develop a joint marketing scheme.

"There didn't seem to be any indication by the fair authority or its members that they were interested in delaying this project any further," Vymlatil said.

"We've done a lot of work on it. We think it will have a positive benefit for us and the whole community."

In his letter, Greco makes the case that a new amphitheater could have a negative financial impact of tens of millions of dollars, with little financial gain.

"Please be advised of our our deep concern pertaining to the development of the amphitheater on the State Fairground property," Greco said.

"While we are unaccustomed to taking such a position since we do not wish to stymie development and are a great advocate of the entrepreneurial concepts that have made this country strong, we are concerned when one government entity undertakes an action that unknowingly significantly impacts all of our constituents."

Using preliminary analyses from the county and Downtown Partnership, Greco says the amphitheater could:

-- Reduce ticket sales at the St. Pete Times Forum by as many as 350,000 annually, costing the county $175,000 and the city $87,500 in revenues from ticket surcharges. The surcharge money is used to pay off some of the debt to build the Times Forum and already isn't keeping pace with payments.

-- Reduce spending downtown by $5-million by taking shows away from the city center.

-- Cause an unspecified loss in bed taxes from people who stay at hotels downtown. Patrons of the amphitheater will be able to stay at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino now under construction, which will not have bed taxes.

-- Result in a loss of up to 30 shows at the St. Pete Times Forum, up to 23 shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and shows at other venues.

-- Reduce the $2-million in sales tax revenues collected by the state that also goes to pay off construction debt.

Further, Greco argues, while the fair authority will not pay any construction costs, potential revenues are slim and probably overstated. He requests that the fair authority delay any decision indefinitely to consult with the city, county and downtown business community.

Attached to his letter is a preliminary analysis by Turnkey Sports, a consultant hired by the city and county to analyze surcharge issues at the Times Forum. It highlights the competitive edge Clear Channel, which owns, operates or exclusively books 99 venues around the country, would have against the Times Forum.

Clear Channel owns venues, promotes shows on them and owns radio stations and an outdoor advertising business. Detroit-based Palace Sports & Entertainment, operators of the Times Forum, has control of just four such venues.

"Clear Channel has a large network of venues and promotional vehicles and leveraged that network into over 30 million concert ticket sales in 2002," the report states. "These synergies can potentially impact the Forum's ability to book events in several ways."

Commissioner Jim Norman has led the charge from the county in seeking a delay to any Fair Authority decision. He says he's not trying to be a bully or muscle into an area in which county government has no say.

"If they're going to have that kind of large facility out there, it's got to take place as positively as possible," he said.

Commissioners Pat Frank and Jan Platt voted against his majority-held position, saying if another governmental body such as the Fair Authority wants to enter into such an agreement, it's none of the county's business.

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