Odds against sports complex

In tight times, county commissioners are uneasy with the $40-million plan.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

TAMPA - In these tough financial times of layoffs in local government, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Jim Norman says his $40-million Championship Park proposal makes more sense than ever.

Tournaments held there will raise money that will pay for upkeep at other parks, while taking the strain of overuse off them, he says. Players and their families who visit will swell tourist, gas and sales tax revenue, as the state pinches property tax receipts that pay for police and fire protection.

"I think more jobs will be lost if we don't create other revenue streams," Norman said. "If you do it right, they're going to make a ton of money.

"And it's good for kids."

But after three years of study and $162,000 in consultants' analysis, Norman is facing resistance as he finally seeks approval from fellow commissioners. The proposal goes to the board on Wednesday.

And in sports parlance, Norman is staring at fourth and long.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita calls the proposed complex an extravagance.She describes it as a risky gamble at a time when the county can ill afford to be wrong, and as a potential monster that will forever require public subsidy.

"I think in this period of declining revenues we have to be extremely extra prudent in how we spend our dollars," Ferlita said. "There are too many risks and too many unfunded needs."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe says he will listen to the pitch but is not sure how high a new sports complex sits on his priority list, given the lean times and pressing needs.

And Commissioner Al Higginbotham says that, outside of his hometown Plant City, near where the park is proposed, residents don't see it as a priority either.

"I'm not finding a lot of support in the community," said Higginbotham, who planned to tour county parks during the weekend to informally poll the people using them.

None of the commissioners reached last week would say they support the project. Lone Democrat Kevin White was out of town and did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Not all see a boon

Like most of the other commissioners, Brian Blair and Ken Hagan, two fellow youth sports boosters, both praised Norman's passion. But in the most telling of noncommittal answers, they also outlined reasons for skepticism about the prospect of a sports complex becoming a financial boon.

Hagan says the location about 40 minutes from downtown Tampa is a problem, as are assumptions that hotels and restaurants will sprout nearby. And Blair says, at the modest rates of return projected by consultants, it's hard to see how the complex will spin off enough money to enhance other parks.

"As a visionary, I give Jim an A-plus," Blair said. "In reality, when we dissect this, there's got to be much more to it before I'll be sold on it."

As history shows with this County Commission, minds can change significantly in the days leading up to a vote. And there is the wildcard that Norman modifies the proposal to address one or more concerns.

But if he's got an angle working, he's not saying.

Norman unveiled his Championship Park vision in July of 2005 after months of working with the county staff on the concept. Two months later, commissioners tentatively set aside $40-million in sales tax money from the community investment tax for the project.

Final approval was subject to a feasibility study vetted by a citizen task force representing the area's universities and business groups. A vote by commissioners has been postponed repeatedly.

Norman initially envisioned a midsized stadium surrounded by dozens of playing fields on roughly 425 acres of county-owned land north of Plant City.

The complex would hold tournaments, high profile youth sports championships and professional and amateur sports competitions. The county would make money off the admissions, naming rights agreements and other advertising, as well as concessions.

"We're trying to piece together something like no other community has," Norman said at the time. "There's not a site like this in the state of Florida."

Wisconsin-based sports and entertaining consulting firm The Leib Group concluded that a Championship Park could indeed make money - ranging from $298,800 to $666,900 annually through the first decade.

But Leib said the ballfields could work, but the stadium should be postponed because of development review hurdles. And there would need to be hotels, restaurants and shops that don't exist nearby now in order to lure big events.

That raised concerns among environmentalists who saw the complex opening up another rural area to development.

And as residents around the state began complaining about skyrocketing property tax bills, Championship Park became exhibit A for runaway spending for some in Hillsborough. The project has been belittled in public hearings, e-mails to commissioners and on-line posts.

Matters of priority

Meanwhile, a tentative vote by commissioners earlier this year to gut its wetlands regulations program stirred throngs of activists. With that issue resolved, many of those folks are turning to Championship Park as an example of misplaced priorities.

They site pledges from boosters of former surefire moneymakers - from the Florida Aquarium to Centro Ybor - projects that now require ongoing subsidies.

"There's nothing that's paid for itself," said Terry Flott of the group United Citizens Action Network, which seeks government accountability and controlled growth. "It seems like such a frivolous project when there are so many other needs in this community."

Other commissioners appear mindful that they will have to wear a vote in favor of Championship Park like a scarlet "40" in future elections.

Norman said no other project has been so thoroughly scrutinized as his sports complex proposal. He believes that projections of profits are conservative at best, while the tradeoff in economic development and opportunities for young athletes is a can't-miss proposition.

"What it comes down to me is doing the right thing," Norman said. "If they think politically they're going to be hurt, they're here for the wrong reasons."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.