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Mayor supports tax break for Lightning

But the team didn't get support in its request to share parking revenues with the city of Tampa.

By JANET ZINK
Published January 30, 2006


TAMPA - The owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning met with Mayor Pam Iorio and city officials Monday to talk about hockey night traffic jams, parking crunches and the team's money woes.

They came away with support from the mayor for their efforts to get an extra $2-million a year tax break from the state Legislature, but no promise of any financial help from the city.

Lightning president Ron Campbell used the meeting with Iorio to revisit a previously discussed topic: sharing parking revenues generated by city garages during events at the St. Pete Times Forum.

The Lightning has a 300-spot VIP surface parking lot west of the arena, and 900 of 1,500 spaces in a city parking garage go to VIPs during special events at the Forum.

But a sold-out event can bring more than 8,000 cars to the area, Campbell said, and drivers end up paying to park in private or city lots.

"We would like to share in some of those revenue streams that we create," Campbell said.

Iorio told Campbell that won't happen any time soon, said Campbell and Bonnie Wise, the city's finance director. Iorio could not be reached for comment.

City parking revenues now go to operate and maintain the parking system and make payments on a $90-million parking system debt, Wise said.

But Iorio did voice support for Campbell's efforts to change state law to double the sales tax rebate for professional sports teams.

The legislative change would give the Lightning an extra $2-million each year. Campbell said the money would pay for improvements to the Forum, which would help keep the defending Stanley Cup champions in Tampa and attract big-name concerts, college sports tournaments and other special events to the arena.

The Forum needs many improvements, from better seating in the upper decks to escalators and ice cooling equipment, Campbell said.

"We're trying to get some assistance because we want to be in Tampa," Campbell said.

So far, the proposed legislation doesn't have a sponsor, although Lightning officials have approached lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

"They opened up a dialogue," Kathy Mears, a spokeswoman for Lee said Monday. "Economic incentives like this are very hard to sell to this Legislature. There needs to be a legitimate and sound cost-benefit analysis before taxpayer dollars are committed to a sports franchise."

Campbell said his organization's financial partnerships with local governments need to be revisited to provide the Lightning with more support.

In 2004, city and Hillsborough County officials voted to allow the county to assume the title of the Times Forum, which gave Palace Sports & Entertainment, the owners of the Lightning, a break on property taxes.

"The city and county acknowledged that was just the first step in several that needed to be taken," Campbell said.

The next step hasn't been determined yet, he said, but the conversations have begun.

"We're just trying to gain ideas," Campbell said.

Also discussed Monday were the Lightning's concerns about traffic and access to parking near the Times Forum.

"We've had a lot of challenges with traffic flow," Campbell said. The mayor "wanted to make sure things were getting better."

They are, Campbell said. But when multiple events occur downtown, traffic can still slow to a crawl, and finding a place to park can be frustrating.

"The surface lots are going away because there are potential condominium projects and offices everywhere," Campbell said. "We all agreed that we need to keep meeting to stay on top of the changing environment down here."

-- Janet Zink can be reached at 813 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 30, 2006, 19:48:33]


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