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We paid for it; it paid off

A county tax finances Raymond James Stadium, swelling Bucs revenues and bringing the Super Bowl to town. Not everyone calls it a good investment.

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


TAMPA -- At a 7-Eleven store several blocks south of Raymond James Stadium, Dave Rusinyak digs deep for a $5 bill to pay for a couple of soft drinks and a pack of Pall Malls.

The 41-year-old welder is doing his part to bring Super Bowl XXXV to Tampa. About 21/2 cents from Rusinyak's $5 goes toward the public's $392-million mortgage on Raymond James Stadium, the football palace whose construction guaranteed Tampa its third Super Bowl.

The state-of-art facility and a sweetheart lease also put a fortune into Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer's pocket. His team, once the NFL's laughingstock, is now the fourth most valuable franchise in football's universe.

Like a lot of citizens who can't afford a ticket to settle into one of Raymond James' comfy, theater-style seats, Rusinyak winces at the notion that his tax dollars are making Glazer wealthier. At the same time, he's happy the Bucs are here and the Super Bowl is coming.

"I watch the Bucs on TV just about every Sunday," he said. "The Super Bowl is good for local business. But Glazer getting all that money? That's too much."

He is not alone in his sentiments. Just as the improving Bucs franchise helped unite the community, the drive to use public money to subsidize a new stadium helped divide it. Politicians still debate the wisdom of building Raymond James Stadium for an out-of-town tycoon and handing him the keys.

"The stadium was a terrible deal for the taxpayers," says Bill Poe, 69, an insurance executive who was Tampa's mayor in the mid 1970s, when the Bucs limped to a humiliating 0-26 NFL start. "The public paid for the whole thing. It's ridiculous."

Four years ago, Poe spent $750,000 of his own money on a legal fight against stadium taxes. Since Raymond James was built chiefly with sales taxes, the poor pay proportionately the most, Poe says. "The low-income get hit the worst, and they can't even afford to get in," he says.

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda voted against the stadium tax and has vowed never to set foot in Raymond James. "If we spent on medicine what we spend on sports, we'd cure cancer; we'd have no more Alzheimer's disease," Miranda said.

The stadium's most visible pitchman may be Dick Greco, Tampa's mayor. Greco, 67, knows a bit about NFL success. He became a millionaire working for mall developer Edward DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, a team that is 5-0 in Super Bowls.

"You can't measure what professional sports does for a community, and you can't in five lifetimes pay for what we'll get out of the Super Bowl," said Greco. "Why, if that stadium hadn't been built, we wouldn't even have football here."

Former County Commissioner Joe Chillura is credited with -- or blamed for -- devising plans for the tax that built Raymond James Stadium. His Community Investment Tax not only got the stadium deal done, but also provides billions for badly needed community services.

But the unusual tax idea chilled plenty of constituents. After it passed, Chillura lost campaigns for Congress and the County Commission.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," Chillura said. "But it was the end of my political career. There's no doubt that Malcolm Glazer got richer because of this. But the community is richer, too. I think it was a win-win."

The new stadium opened Sept. 20, 1998, ushering in a new era of Tampa Bay Buccaneers prosperity.

Last year, five years after Glazer paid a record $192-million for the Bucs, Forbes magazine put the value of the franchise at $532-million, behind only the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns.

The figure left relatives of original Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr., whose death in 1994 necessitated the club's sale, shaking their heads.

"Five hundred and thirty-two million? If my dad had known the team was going to be worth that much, he never would have died," South Florida businessman Hugh Culverhouse Jr. said last week.

Hugh Culverhouse Sr., a former IRS tax attorney who loved to don his orange blazer on Bucs game days, was quite content with Tampa Stadium, the Bucs' old home. Spacious but uncomfortable, the "Big Sombrero" was a concrete dinosaur, with rows of cramped, aluminum bench seats and 59 skyboxes affixed to the top of the stadium, just above the nosebleed sections.

The Bucs boss was also happy to take just half the parking fees and concession revenues from Tampa Stadium. He never demanded a fancier facility.

The reason? Carrying costs. Culverhouse's initial investment when he bought the franchise in 1974 was a paltry $16-million.

By the time Glazer outbid New York Yankees managing partner George Steinbrenner and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the Bucs, franchise prices and player salaries were both headed for the stratosphere. The $192-million bid was was the most ever paid for a professional sports franchise, and recouping it would require a new, revenue-rich stadium, Glazer declared.

A short man with sloped shoulders and a wispy red beard, Malcolm Glazer looked to Tampa's locals more like an Amish farmer than an arbitrager.

He knew next to nothing about the NFL. At a luncheon after he bought the Bucs, Glazer good-naturedly asked if the Bucs had played Jacksonville yet. An uncomfortable silence followed. The Jacksonville Jaguars was a brand-new franchise. It hadn't played anyone yet.

But Glazer, the son of an immigrant watchmaker, knew about getting money and making it grow.

He bought his first stock, in a railroad, at age 13. After dropping out of college, he worked 80-hour weeks fixing watches and selling jewelry until he'd made enough to buy a duplex in Rochester, N.Y.

He parlayed that first real estate investment into holdings in mobile home parks, nursing homes and shopping centers. He made millions in corporate arbitrage by buying stock in companies like Harley-Davidson. He bought TV stations and restaurants, then the Zapata Corp., an oil business founded by former President George Bush.

He built a reputation for tightfistedness. In Rochester, mobile home tenants said Glazer charged them $5 a month extra for a pet and $3 extra for a child. The general manager of a TV station Glazer purchased recalled the new owner grilling him about a few dollars he wanted to spend for three cans of spray paint.

He thirsted for a professional sports team, failing in attempts to buy the New England Patriots, San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates before finally acquiring the Bucs.

When he got to Tampa in 1995, the 67-year-old father of six stood up one September day and announced he would finance half the cost of a new $168-million stadium, "which is taking the shirts off our backs."

Glazer's generous pledge was conditioned on the community buying 50,000 seat deposits, licenses permitting the purchase of Bucs season tickets. A five-week campaign -- capped by a live broadcast by all Tampa Bay area TV stations -- fell short by more than 17,000 deposits. Alternate plans to pay for a stadium with taxes on rental cars, restaurants, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes all bogged down.

Glazer, with sons Joel and Bryan as new Bucs executives, began looking elsewhere. They met with officials in Orlando and Hartford, Conn.; looked at Baltimore and Los Angeles; and hopped aboard a helicopter for a bird's-eye view of a cow-pasture stadium site in Osceola County, a few minutes drive from Walt Disney World.

Except for a couple of years, the Bucs had always been a joke, a staple of Johnny Carson standups, a Creamsicle-orange-clad club with the worst record in all of pro sports. Suddenly the thought of the Bucs packing up and moving didn't seem so funny.

"I always called it the Ugly Baby syndrome," says former Tampa Sports Authority executive director Rick Nafe. "They hand you this baby and it's really ugly. But you've got to love it. You've got to keep it.

"It's yours."

And, as Chicago sports consultant Jeffrey Phillips says, "Look at what happened in St. Louis, Cleveland and Baltimore: They all lost NFL teams and ended up using more public money to get teams back."

Tampa got its chance to keep its ugly baby, thanks to Chillura's newfangled Community Investment Tax. The proposal was a 30-year, half-cent sales tax to pay for the stadium, as well as schools, police needs and public works projects. Proponents stressed that a measly 6 percent of $2.7-billion collected over three decades would go for the stadium.

To some, it looked like a Trojan horse was being constructed to appease Glazer. But Chillura said it could work. It's a pie, he said, "where everybody eats."

Voters turned out in September 1996 in huge numbers, by first primary standards, and approved the Community Investment Tax 53 percent to 47 percent. Exit polls showed a majority voted for the tax in spite of the stadium, not because of it; they liked the millions for school construction more.

One more obstacle remained. Bill Poe sued, challenging the constitutionality of using public money for a private business, Glazer's.

A university professor testified that economic impact numbers attributed to the Bucs were "a bunch of hokum." A circuit judge said the Bucs' lease was too big a giveaway. But Florida's Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Poe.

Glazer never contributed a dime to stadium construction. Under the Tampa Sports Authority lease, the Bucs do pay rent of $3.5-million and hand over ticket surcharges of $1.4-million a year. But the total doesn't cover the authority's annual tab to operate the facility.

The Bucs, under NFL rules, keep all the revenues from the 195 luxury suites at Raymond James, some priced as high as $165,000 a year. They also get naming rights and almost all revenues from tickets, concessions, advertising and parking, as well as a cut of non-Bucs event revenues.

"It is a sweetheart deal," said Milwaukee sports consultant Michael Megna. "It's one of the top five or six leases in the NFL, in terms of how the franchise benefits."

The bottom line: In the last year at the Big Sombrero (renamed Houlihan's, after Glazer's restaurant chain), profits were $7-million on $81-million in revenues. In 1999 at Raymond James, profits were $40-million on $133-million in revenues.

With a first-rate facility, a new coach and more money for player bonuses, the Bucs are no longer a laughingstock.

Greco says it's "one of the best deals we ever made, in terms of how it enhanced the community."

Poe still dissents.

A few months after Malcolm Glazer's stadium opened, Poe was called before the Hillsborough County Commission and honored with the Moral Courage Award for his one-man battle against the stadium taxes.

"I would not tell you that I have changed my position on this," Poe told the commission. "I think that this was wrong.

"History will decide."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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