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Detroit businessman takes on ThunderDawgs

ABA 2000 franchise hopes new owner addresses problems with attendance and debt.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


The Tampa Bay ThunderDawgs have blamed many of their attendance and debt problems on an uninvolved ownership.

Those problems apparently were addressed when Detroit businessman Arthur Blackwell II bought the team, promising to turn the organization around while staying in St. Petersburg.

Blackwell, who owns the Detroit Dogs of the ABA 2000, was in St. Petersburg Wednesday meeting with team officials, players and management of the Bayfront Center, where the ThunderDawgs play home games.

Neither he nor ThunderDawgs general manager Deb Belinsky returned messages left for them at the team's office.

Joe Newman, a co-founder of the league and owner of the Indiana Legends, confirmed Blackwell took over ownership from In Flight Sports Management. Newman said he talked to Blackwell about the team and supported the sale.

"Art Blackwell is a good man," Newman said. "And his choice is to stay in St. Pete. We feel we provide a quality product such that the citizens and tourists would want to go there. When you have a negative press it makes it very difficult. I have great belief in the city and believe it can be like a major-league market."

Newman did not rule out moving the team before the season ends, however.

"It does not give you a warm and fuzzy feeling that makes you want to stay," Newman said of recent reports of the team's debts, "especially when I can sit here and have 35 other cities who want an ABA team."

Newman, who said the league will expand by either seven or 10 teams before next year, said he has an offer from one city roughly the size of the Tampa Bay area that has guaranteed 3,750 seats sold for the next three years and is willing to pay up front. Blackwell, he said, is using relocation as a last resort.

"He wants to see if he can save it," Newman said, "see if he can turn it into something. He does not plan to leave."

Blackwell, a graduate of North Carolina A&T University, is president and chief executive officer of DeWay Development Co., which is the largest pay phone provider for metro Detroit and the fastest-growing African-American business in that area, according to the Detroit Dogs.

He is a partner in Greektown Casino, one of three casino licensees in Detroit. In 1980, he became the youngest person elected to the Wayne County Commission. Blackwell is the only African-American to chair the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority and is its longest-serving chairman, elected to his 11th consecutive term.

The ThunderDawgs have poor attendance, lack a marketing budget and have debts the team has incurred over the past year and a half.

The ThunderDawgs reportedly owe money to the Heritage Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg, where the team was housed during training camp, Insty-Prints of Tampa and Chesapeak Atlantic Holdings, which owns the building in Tampa where the team was based for about a year before moving to St. Petersburg in June.

The team reportedly relied on outside help to pay rent for the Bayfront Arena. Jeff Foreman, Bayfront Arena manager of downtown operations, did not return messages left at his office.

David Bixler, general manager of the Heritage Holiday Inn, and representatives from Insty-Prints had no comment.

David Shaw, general manager at All-Star Limo and Luxury Transportation, which was said to be owed money, said his books showed the team owes no balance.

"They're all squared away," Shaw said. "I think we only ran them to the airport a couple of times."

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