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City arena could be demolished

A USF official suggests that a new conference facility replace the Bayfront Center - an idea that excites city officials.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The city's leaky, antiquated and windowless Bayfront Center arena on the waterfront could be torn down and replaced with a new conference center that would be run by the University of South Florida and double as a student center for the St. Petersburg campus.

The Mahaffey Theater wing -- which received most of the benefit of a $26-million renovation in 1988 -- would remain and would be integrated into the new center. That's the vision campus vice president Bill Heller sketched out for the St. Petersburg City Council on Monday.

Leasing waterfront public land to the university would require voter approval. Council member John Bryan has been pushing for the council to think of something new to do with the arena land, and Monday he added an idea to Heller's proposal likely to be popular with city residents who cherish their public waterfront.

"Maybe the road behind the arena no longer needs to be there," Bryan said of a four-lane stretch of Bayshore Drive SE needed back in the days when thousands of fans swarmed the arena to see Neil Diamond or other popular concerts. "Maybe we could run a new linear waterfront park back there."

The drive could be closed south of First Avenue S, which would also allow the park to extend behind the small Florida Power Park baseball stadium. Cars would enter the parking lot of the ballpark and conference center (which would retain the relatively new parking decks) from First Street S.

Though they could not vote on the ideas in their informal workshop session Monday, City Council members received them enthusiastically, asking First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston to have city staffers study several aspects and look into hiring a consultant to explore the concept further.

When some of that research is done, perhaps a month to six weeks from now, the council plans to hold a public hearing to see what residents think of the idea, Chairwoman Rene Flowers said. There are no drawings or plans and no firm idea who would pay for such a project. Council member Virginia Littrell said she likes Heller's idea, but she wants to see the council examine other proposals for the site as well.

The Bayfront Center requires a taxpayer subsidy every year of about $1.3-million. That is partly because the Times Arena is mostly unable to attract profitable big-name events. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a notable exception.

The arena once attracted top national acts. But more modern venues such as Tampa's Ice Palace and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall -- and even Tropicana Field several blocks away -- stole business.

The arena half of the Bayfront Center complex is in rough shape. Despite a new roof a few years ago, rain pours in around through light fixtures mounted in the exterior walls. The restrooms and locker rooms are old and show it. Fixing the leaks and water damage would cost from $1.5- to $2-million, with no prospect of reducing the annual subsidy.

That prompted the council to discuss other options Monday: The city could renovate the arena, turning it into a convention center to host trade shows or consumer expositions. It could tear down the arena and build a new one on that site or elsewhere.

But when Heller took the microphone and pitched the conference center, council members' eyes lit up. The university and the city each could pitch in money to build and operate the new center, which would be available both to the community and the university for conferences and other events, Heller said.

It should also contain a student center for the university campus, Heller said.

"Commuter students need a place to put their feet up and grab a sandwich and wait for that class to start," he said. "Most universities have a student center or a student union, but our campus has grown up without one."

The Student Activities Center is primarily a gymnasium, he said.

Though there are several convention centers around Tampa Bay, a conference center that emphasized educational seminars and symposiums would have much less competition and could bring lots of travelers into downtown St. Petersburg, said Don Shea, executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, a private group of business people.

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