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    Such a deal

    How a developer traded on local contacts to put a glitzy new mall at the edge of the airport. But at what cost to the public?

    By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


    TAMPA -- When Richard Corbett came to Tampa in 1978, he had a nose that had been broken five times. But he could still smell a deal.

    As a boxer in his youth, Corbett learned to be cool, calculating and persistent. If he paced himself and hit them just right, his opponents went down. But if he misjudged, he sometimes got a bloody nose.

    It was good training for what was to come in Tampa.

    He knew almost no one. He was a yankee and a newcomer in a Southern city that looked askance at outsiders. At every turn, he seemed to run into government regulations, social obstacles or money woes.

    "Little did I know how difficult it would be," Corbett says with a wide grin.

    Now, two decades later, the diminutive ex-boxer with the pug nose can afford to smile.

    He is the driving force behind a swank shopping mall under construction on the edge of Tampa International Airport. When it opens in September 2001, Corbett's International Plaza -- featuring high-end retailers Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus -- will generate tourists, jobs and plenty of tax revenue. Some day, Corbett declares expansively, the mall may even rival Disney as Florida's No. 1 attraction.

    So how did the ultimate outsider overcome the obstacles and prevail? By becoming a consummate insider.

    He hired a slew of politically connected lawyers and advisers. He and his allies spread campaign cash and perquisites. He capitalized on slack local scrutiny and listless federal enforcement as the bureaucracy stretched the intent of old and vague rules.

    Three people stand out:

    When Corbett needed someone to smooth his way through the bureaucracy, he teamed up with Stella Ferguson Thayer, a pillar of the Tampa establishment and member of a powerful family whose business empire and political pull touch virtually every fabric of the city.

    When he needed someone to take care of details, he hired John Eggert, the son of Tampa International's longtime attorney, Stewart C. Eggert, an influential, publicly paid lawyer who signed off on the airport's legal contracts for three decades.

    And when he needed someone to make the numbers go his way, he turned to Charles L. Knight, a veteran appraiser and popular man-about-town.

    In January 1996, Knight appraised the 156-acre tract at about $18,750 an acre. The figure was so low that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the appointive body that oversees the airport, drastically cut Corbett's rent.

    That same month, however, Knight appraised another tract, 65.7 acres just northeast of Corbett's, for at least $345,129 an acre -- about 18 times higher than Corbett's.

    Together, Knight, Eggert and Thayer helped Corbett the outsider get a deal that would make even the best-connected developer drool.

    Critics, including the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general and the owners of a nearby mall, contend that Corbett's mega-deal with the Aviation Authority shortchanges the airport and its customers out of millions of dollars each year.

    By the time the leases are up in 2080, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis, the public will be out at least $220-million. That money could have gone to new runways, cargo buildings and terminal improvements at a fast-growing airport that is running out of land.

    One critic is William P. Pardue Jr., an Orlando appraiser whom the Times hired earlier this year to review Knight's appraisal of the mall site.

    That appraisal is "utterly without credibility," Pardue concluded, adding that the land is worth far more. Moreover, Pardue found, the developers' lease with the airport is "so disadvantageous to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority as to be characterized as "rotten.' " (See story, next page.)

    Corbett and his allies scoff at the criticism, noting that the airport and city, county, state and federal governments have repeatedly helped the project along over the years.

    "There is no smoking gun here," says David Mechanik, an attorney and lobbyist for the developers. "There's nothing improper or untoward about what's taken place."

    "It's easy to look at things and say, "This guy got a lot of breaks,' but it's not true," Corbett adds, dismissing the notion he tried to buy influence or special treatment.

    "I made it a good deal through persistence."

    The land

    Long before Corbett made the leap from boxer to developer, it was obvious that the triangular chunk of land on the southeastern edge of the airport was one of the most valuable tracts in the Tampa Bay area.

    It was centrally located in the metro area, right by the fast-growing airport and booming West Shore business district. But there were drawbacks, too.

    The federal government had taken over the airport during World War II. When it later deeded 30 acres of the tract back to local government, it stipulated that the property could be used only for "public airport purposes."

    In addition, federal rules require that airports getting federal funds must receive fair market rent for land they lease and use the rent for airport improvements. And the land could not have tall buildings, which might pose a hazard to low-flying planes.

    Those were the rules. The reality was that Tampa's fledgling airport grew so fast and made so much money that rules sometimes fell by the board. Cozy ties developed between some of the people who ran the airport and businessmen who profited from it.

    Eddie C. Diaz, a developer and Aviation Authority chairman in the 1980s, said many people got on appointed boards like the Aviation Authority "so we can further our personal business if at all possible, so long as it's not illegal or immoral."

    "We used to call it (the Aviation Authority) the banana republic because they were so autonomous," said Diaz in an interview two months before his death at age 72 on Aug. 18. "The county couldn't touch them. The state couldn't touch them. The city couldn't touch them."

    In 1961, the Aviation Authority board leased a chunk of the land to homebuilding tycoon Jim Walter. The board told him to manage a motel on the site.

    Twelve years later, without competitive bidding and under a procedure that would be forbidden today, the board leased Walter an additional 131-acre tract for up to 40 years. The board told him to build a golf course and 16 tennis courts. Minimum yearly rent: $25,000 a year or 8 percent of the sales, whichever was greater.

    Little by little, the board added land and let Walter sublease a piece cheaply to the Tampa Bay Bucs for their headquarters.

    The deal apparently was never very lucrative for Walter, however. He found the zoning restrictions confining, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees public airport land, complained that the golf course encroached on federal property and interfered with FAA radar. The FAA also objected to the land being rented on the cheap, in apparent violation of federal laws requiring that airports get market value for the land they lease.

    Eventually, Walter decided to cash in and get out.

    The developer

    Enter Dick Corbett. Friends told him he was a fool to covet the airport property, he says, but he saw it as a special opportunity.

    "I saw the airport as a diamond," he says, "and when I looked at Jim Walter's property, I thought, "This is unique. This could be the emerald next to the diamond."'

    Corbett, now 62, had always been a scrapper.

    The son of a garrulous lawyer, young Dick had lots of hustle, an ingratiating manner and an instinct for survival. In the boxing rings of Rochester, N.Y., he did so well in his division that he began to take on heavier opponents in another division. He says he became a high school champ in both divisions.

    He attended Notre Dame, where, as president of his senior class, Dick met presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Inspired, he joined Kennedy's campaign, then landed in Washington as a junior White House aide.

    After two years, he left with a Rolodex of contacts to get a master's in business at Harvard, then got a job buying and selling real estate at the Park Agency, the company that managed Joseph P. Kennedy's estate.

    Corbett says he was standing within 8 feet of Robert F. Kennedy when he was murdered in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968.

    He met his wife-to-be, Cornelia Harriman Gerry, in New York City. Cornie, as friends and family call her, is a great-granddaughter of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman and a descendant of Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and vice president under James Madison.

    By the late 1970s, Corbett was looking for new real estate challenges. Land prices along Florida's west coast were soaring, so the Corbetts moved from Manhattan to Tampa.

    When they arrived, Tampa was still a quintessential Southern city, where second- and third-generation business people were used to doing deals at all-male city clubs and all-white country clubs.

    At first, Corbett was viewed as an outsider, a yankee. But he quickly learned the ropes.

    As it happened, Corbett already knew one lawyer in town. Only this was not just any lawyer.

    Chester H. Ferguson was married to the former Louise Lykes, a granddaughter of the physician-businessman who began the enterprises that grew into one of the South's largest family business empires. Over the years Ferguson had clambered past assorted in-laws to assume command.

    It was Ferguson who carried Corbett's offer on the airport property to Jim Walter. For more than $4-million, Walter sold his leases on the land to a Corbett partnership in 1979.

    The lawyer

    Corbett moved decisively. He made friends with important people and invited them for a round of golf or to his family's plantation near Tallahassee. He cultivated politicians with campaign contributions and took at least one, Dick Greco, on a quail hunting trip. He gave money to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. He raised his public profile by buying the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team. And he assembled a corps of advisers that was a Who's Who of Tampa.

    Perhaps none was more important than Ferguson's daughter, Stella Ferguson Thayer. A lawyer like her father, Thayer, now 59, had little of his bluster but a lot of his business acumen and influence.

    A soft-spoken woman, she managed to remain intensely private while being highly visible. She was the first woman to preside over the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and served on a myriad of boards, from the state Constitution Revision Commission in 1978 to the governing authority of Tampa General Hospital in 1980-86. For a time she was co-owner of the Rowdies (with Corbett), and for years she has owned the Tampa Bay Downs horse track.

    Hiring Thayer gave Corbett respectability and credibility. If he needed entry to Tampa's business oligarchy, Thayer was there. If he needed help securing government approvals and permits, he could rely on one of Thayer's law associates, David Mechanik, whose specialties are zoning and political access. If he needed money, he could turn, among other places, to the bank controlled by the Lykes family. (The bank's chief executive was Thayer's father. After his death in 1983, the post passed to her husband, A. Bronson Thayer).

    Thayer says she simply provided legal services for Corbett, though she won't discuss specifics or say how much he paid her law firm. And Corbett plays down her role, saying he made connections on his own and got bank loans based on the merits, not on Thayer's influence.

    Corbett also cultivated George Bean, the airport's executive director. Bean's visionary planning had made Tampa International one of America's best airports, and the gruff, chain-smoking Bean ran things with an iron hand.

    In 1982, three years after Corbett acquired the lease on the airport land, Bean gave him a big break.

    He pitched a plan to raze the motel and golf course that Jim Walter had operated and turn the land into a trade center, with a new hotel, conference center, offices and shops to encourage international travel.

    "After I suggested it," says Bean, "Corbett chased that rabbit for a long time."

    Corbett called it International Plaza, and the corporate papers originally listed just one officer, Stella Thayer. She says now she never had a financial interest in the company, but she attended the meeting on Nov. 15, 1982, when the International Plaza deal breezed through the Aviation Authority board.

    Among other things, the deal stretched Corbett's lease from 40 to 75 years -- essentially locking out airlines or any other business from bidding on the property.

    "Some of the stuff in the lease was idiotic," acknowledged Diaz, who was then board chairman.

    Corbett kept acquiring power and influence. The aviation board sweetened the deal, adding land and pressing the city of Tampa to vacate roadways and rezone the land for Corbett's project.

    In 1985, amid a flurry of amendments, mortgage filings and other arcane-sounding legal documents, the aviation board whisked through yet another contract for Corbett. It was a builder's dream.

    The fine print guaranteed generous rent terms, including what would amount to a $1.4-million discount on future rent. It also provided a small rent increase: 5 percent every decade, not nearly enough to keep pace with inflation.

    Finally, the contract extended the lease for 23 more years, for a total of 95 years until 2080.

    The detail man

    Now, there was even more detail work. To help handle it, Corbett hired a new lieutenant, John Eggert, in 1986.

    Eggert, then 24, had been attending graduate school at Florida State. He was "brilliant . . . the best candidate I interviewed," Corbett says.

    He also happened to be the son of one of the most influential men at the airport, Stewart C. Eggert.

    Since the 1960s, Stu Eggert's law firm had an open-ended contract at TIA, billing millions for legal work. Low-profile, he negotiated the airport's leases, reviewed contracts and kept the aviation board on the legal up-and-up.

    He calls himself "pretty much a mechanic," simply doing what his bosses wanted. But other people say Eggert was a potent force at the airport. "Stu ran the show," said Diaz.

    Corbett knew the hiring posed "a major problem" because the son would represent the developer even as his father represented the airport.

    John Eggert did not respond to requests for an interview, but his father acknowledges that "it kind of caused difficulty in our relationship," explaining that he kept a distance from his son.

    Eggert adds that his son's hiring had absolutely no bearing on any decision he made as airport lawyer.

    "There is nothing ethically wrong with the situation," he says he was recently told by ethics experts.

    The skeptic

    Corbett conducted studies, drew up a sleek brochure and kept assuring the airport that the trade center complex was coming. It never did. Tampa's real estate market went into a tailspin. The golf course, once called the Hall of Fame, got dubbed the Hall of Shame.

    Aviation board members, who were getting very little for the land, grew increasingly frustrated. They soon found themselves rebuffing potentially lucrative offers from rival developers.

    Each time they asked in private about Corbett, Stu Eggert told them they couldn't cancel the lease without facing a costly lawsuit, says former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, an airport board member from 1986 to 1995.

    Board members rarely challenged Stu Eggert or George Bean. But by 1988, member Frank Morsani's patience had run thin, and he sent a letter to Bean.

    "We are now going into the eighth year with literally no progress," wrote Morsani, a prominent car dealer. "This is causing a tremendous loss, not only to the airport revenues but to our community. . . . I would be willing to figure out a way for us to buy him (Corbett) out of his contract . . . just to get this thing off center."

    At a board meeting three years later, Morsani tried to get Corbett ousted.

    "Counsel will probably shoot me," Morsani said, referring to Eggert, "but I will ask it anyway. . . . Is there . . . anything we can do to get our land back because nothing is happening?"

    Board member J. Bert Grandoff, a friend of Stu Eggert's, sidestepped the question.

    "He is paying the rent, isn't he?" asked Grandoff, who eventually went to work at Eggert's law firm.

    "Yes, he is today," Eggert replied.

    But unbeknownst to the airport, Corbett wasn't paying his loans.

    Corbett's companies owed $13.5-million to Florida Federal Savings Bank, which was seized by federal regulators after running up huge real estate losses and bad loans. The Resolution Trust Corp., the government agency that oversaw the savings and loan bailout, sued Corbett and his wife, demanding repayment.

    Thayer came to the rescue. She organized a firm called CHAR Inc. and turned it over to directors, among them Mrs. Corbett's relatives. Documents indicate the RTC sold the loan to CHAR, which then sold it back to Corbett for a big discount -- $5.4-million. It was a great deal for Corbett, but apparently a blow to taxpayers, who had to write off the remainder of the loan.

    Corbett says he received no unusual treatment from the RTC, noting the agency often sold problem loans during the S&L crisis for less than they were worth.

    The mall magnate

    Even before Corbett ran into the bank regulators, he was exploring a new option: a shopping mall on the site.

    There was a hitch, however. No private lender would finance such a multimillion-dollar airport project because of post-World War II deeds saying the federal portion of the land must "be used for public airport purposes." A shopping mall hardly seemed like a "public airport purpose."

    Yet, after Bean and Stu Eggert interceded for Corbett, the FAA agreed to amend the deeds. It authorized a special eight-page declaration stating a mall does serve a "public airport" purpose.

    David Bennett, the FAA's director of airport safety and standards, says the declaration did not sign away the public's rights to the land. He says regulators can still reclaim the federal portion of the property if they ever find it is not being leased for enough money.

    By 1993, Corbett seemed to be on the rebound. He bought a $1.1-million house in an exclusive subdivision, and shortly thereafter, his friend and legal adviser, Stella Thayer, got appointed to the Aviation Authority board by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

    "That's when the big changes happened," former board member Diaz said. "The thing that didn't smell right is when Stella got on the aviation board."

    On an appointment questionnaire, Thayer listed lobbying activities at the Hillsborough County Commission and the Florida Legislature. She didn't have to disclose her dealings with Corbett or the airport, however, because she says she hadn't lobbied any aviation board member in five years.

    Thayer's law firm represented Corbett in 1994, when -- 15 years after he acquired the leases to the airport land -- he hit the jackpot. He signed a private agreement with representatives of A. Alfred Taubman, a Michigan shopping mall magnate, selling his company exclusive rights to build a pricey mall there.

    Airport officials took the attitude that the private agreement was none of their business. And when the board met to consider the mall, Thayer didn't say what, if anything, she knew. "I just need to recuse myself because the law firm of which I am a member has and continues to do work for this client," she said.

    With virtually no discussion, a new lease authorizing the mall breezed through the board on May 5, 1994. A good deal got better -- and it was about to get even better.

    The appraiser

    As important as the airport tract had become, its exact worth was a mystery. The Aviation Authority board hadn't done an appraisal in more than 20 years.

    That changed when Corbett pressed the airport for rent relief in the winter of 1996.

    Corbett, who would have paid $700,000 in rent that year, asked that the "minimum rent provision" in his lease be dropped -- meaning his rent would fall in the first year alone to $200,000 (from $800,000).

    Airport officials were leery. Just four years before, U.S. Transportation Department auditors had recommended that TIA's federal funds be yanked because the airport was leasing some of its federal land for below market value, at a cost to TIA of $4-million in fiscal years 1988, 1989 and 1990. The airport told Corbett he would need an appraisal before the airport would make rent concessions. So Corbett commissioned Charles L. Knight, 67, a respected oldtimer who knew judges and was friendly with people on the aviation board.

    The decision to let Corbett pay for Knight's services was unusual. Usually, the airport paid so it wouldn't look like the appraiser was simply writing an opinion to suit a tenant's needs.

    Knight inspected the property and produced a three-paragraph letter stating that Corbett was paying too much rent. Knight based his opinion on his appraisal of the 155.95 acres at $2,925,000, or about $18,750 an acre.

    The numbers should have raised red flags.

    That same month, Knight did another appraisal for the airport, of 65.7 acres less than a mile from the mall site. For that property, owned by the Tampa Sports Authority, Knight reported a value of at least $22,675,000, or $345,129 an acre -- roughly 18 times more.

    The airport ended up buying the Sports Authority land for $19,375,000, or $295,031 an acre. The money helped the Sports Authority finance a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and keep the team from leaving town.

    Knight, who died two months later, argued that the future mall site was of little value because of the long lease, environmental problems, rules restricting development and "supplemental information" supplied by two of Corbett's hired hands: Dave Mechanik, the zoning lawyer who lobbied politicians he helped elect, and Richard A. Beard III, a politically connected developer whom Corbett had retained as a consultant.

    Beard and Mechanik say no one directed Knight to write an appraisal with a low value to justify low rents.

    "A licensed appraiser is not going to gear his answers based on who's paying the fee," Mechanik says.

    William Pardue, the Orlando appraiser whom the Times hired earlier this year to review Knight's work, is critical.

    Knight's letter and appraisal report are "grossly inaccurate . . . (and) misleading," says Pardue.

    For one thing, says Pardue, Knight never fully explained why he gave the 156 acres such a low value. For another, he ignored what the property would be worth as a mall.

    "That's like valuing a green banana that's never going to get ripe," Pardue says, adding that a typical "mature" mall is valued in the range of $5 a square foot. For a site the size of International Plaza, that would mean a value of $34-million, or $217,948 an acre -- more than 11 times higher than Knight's appraisal.

    Further deflating the land's value, Knight relied on comparable sales of far less prestigious properties, while ignoring more desirable nearby sites, says Pardue.

    "Anyone who is reasonably informed about values in the vicinity of Tampa International Airport would recognize that the values reported in the (Knight) appraisal are absurd," he concludes.

    Despite the apparent shortcomings, aviation board members didn't mention Knight's appraisal when they took up Corbett's rent request on Feb. 1, 1996.

    Nobody asked a simple question: How much is the land worth? With Stella Thayer calling for the vote (she abstained from the vote itself), the board whisked through the motion dropping his minimum rent.

    The final rounds

    At the airport, Corbett's final rounds went pretty smoothly.

    Louis Miller, who replaced the retiring George Bean as airport boss in 1996, clearly wasn't in love with the idea of a shopping mall on airport property. But he and the board decided to keep the deal alive. In early 1998, he extended a deadline so the mall people could complete arrangements.

    As details trickled out, the disgruntled owners of West Shore Plaza, about a mile away from the planned International Plaza, raised an 11th-hour objection.

    They said that the deal was rife with politics and that it gave Corbett an unfair advantage. The below-market rents, they said, would force the public to pay more and cheat the airport out of at least $500-million over the 80-year life of the leases.

    But it was too late.

    In September 1998, the aviation board approved new generous leases for the developers, paving the way for the mall, a hotel and office buildings on 156 acres once envisioned for aviation companies, not retail stores.

    Stella Thayer, who says she no longer represents Corbett, again abstained.

    Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Hillsborough County Commissioner Chris Hart, both recipients of campaign contributions from Corbett and his allies, helped persuade fellow aviation board members to accept the leases.

    Despite criticism from federal auditors and taxpayer groups, the Federal Aviation Administration blessed the mall transaction, and airport officials dismissed the idea of ordering a new appraisal.

    "It's over. It's done. It's water under the bridge," says Miller, the airport director. "These are the cards we've been dealt. We're going to play the hand and make the best of it."

    These days, Dick Corbett calls the shots from an unassuming gray building beside the cranes and bulldozers on the mall site.

    "I had no one to help me, no one willing to walk the trail with me," Corbett says. The onetime boy boxer portrays himself as a sort of heavyweight loner who fixed his target, then kept his eyes on the prize as he sustained a hail of punches from the bureaucracy.

    He says he spent "several million" over the years improving the property, but he won't give specifics. He gets a bit irritated as he recounts how he stayed in the ring and paced himself during the battles over financing, marketing and permits.

    "Now that it's finally a success, people are jealous," he says. "Where were these critics 20 years ago when I was pouring money down it? They come running down the street 20 years later saying, "Now, we're unhappy.' That's just not the way business is done."

    Asked how much he stands to make, Corbett sidesteps the question. Yes, he says, he got a good deal, but "it wasn't a good deal when I bought it. . . . I had a vision and I stuck to it."

    -- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

    A battle of appraisers

    In 1996, Charles L. Knight of Tampa wrote an appraisal for the 156-acre tract where developers are now building a shopping mall.

    Earlier this year, William P. Pardue Jr. of Orlando reviewed Knight's appraisal for the St. Petersburg Times.

    Knight, who died in March 1996, two months after doing his appraisal, was president of Knight Appraisal Services and C.L. Knight & Sons Inc., real estate brokerage and appraisal firms in Hillsborough County. For 40 years, he did appraisals for government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the city of Tampa and companies such as Lykes Bros. Inc. and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

    Pardue is manager of Central Florida appraisal operations for Primis Inc., an Atlanta-based real estate appraisal firm. He specializes in appraisals of complex commercial transactions and has done work for Orange and Brevard counties as well as Walt Disney World and Exxon.

    Here are their key findings:

    The value

    Knight concluded the tract was worth $2,925,000, or $18,750 an acre.

    Pardue said Knight drastically undervalued the land, calling Knight's report "utterly without credibility. . . . The values reported . . . are absurd and provide no rational basis for financial transactions involving the property."

    The restrictions

    Knight said the land was of limited value because of a long-term lease that carried many restrictions on development. He cited limitations on the type of lighting, signs and construction on the property, as well as rules limiting building heights to 11 stories. He also marked down the property because of known and potential pollution problems caused by leaky underground fuel tanks. The law suggests the developers would have to pay for environmental cleanup, Knight said.

    Pardue said the restrictions do not justify such a huge markdown. He said Knight's report fails to describe how or why the restrictions lowered the property value. For example, building height limitations are not very significant because only a few buildings outside Tampa's central business district exceed 11 stories. Pardue was also critical of Knight's speculation about pollution cleanup costs. Knight did not present facts to support his conclusions, Pardue said, and no appraiser should attempt to interpret law.

    The comparables

    Knight compared the future mall site with nine recently sold tracts. After making adjustments, he came up with what he said was a reasonable price of 43 cents a square foot.

    Pardue said many of Knight's examples were poor comparisons because they were very different in location or too small or remote to be future mall sites. Pardue said a typical mall site sells for around $5 a square foot.

    The rent

    Knight concluded that the agreement, which called for the developers to pay $700,000 in rent in 1996, should be amended. He said $200,000 was a fairer rent.

    Pardue said the rent already was below market value. The developers' lease is "so disadvantageous to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority as to be characterized as "rotten,' " he said.

    Long-term implications

    Pardue said Knight's rent formula is overly optimistic. TIA stands to lose millions, Pardue added, because rent increases won't keep pace with inflation or rising land values.

    Key dates

    JULY 31, 1979: Richard Corbett, a partner in Sunhil Investors, agrees to pay more than $4-million for leases on about 140 acres at Tampa International Airport. On the land: a golf course, a motel and the headquarters of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    NOV. 15, 1982: Corbett wins approval from the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority to put a trade center, hotel, conference center and offices on the property. The lease is extended from 40 years to 75 years.

    SEPT. 5, 1985: After Corbett complains of problems marketing the property for development, the Aviation Authority sweetens the deal. Among other things, the new contract stretches the lease to 95 years and sets a rent formula that would raise the land rent by only 5 percent every 10 years.

    MAY 5, 1994: The Aviation Authority whisks through a new lease allowing a shopping mall after Corbett's Concorde Companies signs an agreement with representatives of mall magnate A. Alfred Taubman.

    JAN. 30, 1996: Charles L. Knight, an appraiser hired by Corbett, values the land at about $18,750 an acre and declares that Corbett's rent is too high. Two days later, the Aviation Authority votes 3-0 to slash Corbett's rent.

    SEPT. 9-10, 1998: Overriding criticism that the land is grossly undervalued and Corbett's lease far too generous, the Aviation Authority unanimously approves new agreements with Corbett and others for the shopping mall and an office building on the property.

    DEC. 22, 1999: The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation says it will recommend that the Federal Aviation Administration withhold federal funds from the airport until the Aviation Authority amends the leases to provide for fair-market value.

    JULY 10, 2000: Despite escalating controversy, the FAA approves the leases and finds the Aviation Authority did nothing wrong. Case closed.

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