Wrecking ball tips its hat to Big Sombrero
By STEVE HUETTEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 1999
"It doesn't want to go," laughed Yolanda Gant, among some 50 fans who got up early Monday to watch the ceremonial kick-off for demolition of Houlihan's Stadium.
Perched in the cab of a huge crane, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco took five more whacks before the wrecking ball broke through the roof.
"I'd have never dreamed in my life we'd tear it down," said Greco, first elected mayor in 1967, the year the original Tampa Stadium opened. "But we live in a society where if you don't keep moving ahead, you don't survive."
Last fall, Eagle Amalgamated Services won the $740,000 contract to tear down the 74,000-seat stadium.
The Tampa demolition company auctioned off everything anyone would buy, from urinals to aluminum benches to bar stools, in December. Workers spent the past 31/2 weeks stripping out everything else.
A pest control firm chased out thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats by netting off the nooks and crannies where they lived for decades.
It wasn't even the first demolition day. The crane started cracking concrete in the stadium's northeast corner Friday.
But Monday's event gave fans a last chance to grab souvenirs and politicians a stage to defend spending $185-million in tax money to build the new Raymond James Stadium.
Lee LaValle of St. Petersburg carried two handfuls of sod off the playing field; her son cradled a chunk of concrete.
"We're going to take it home and see if it grows," said LaValle, a concessions manager at Raymond James. "We'll try to keep this landmark alive."
Gant rousted her mother, aunt, daughter and two grandchildren out of bed after hearing on the 6 a.m. television news that the wrecking ball was coming down.
The field was a sorry-looking mess of browned-out grass and bulldozer tracks.
"It sorta looks nasty, doesn't it?" she said. "But there are still a lot of good memories here. I hate to see it go; it's a sad day."
Tearing down the stadium, crushing it into rubble and carting away the pieces should take until late March, said Rob Fahey, project manager for Eagle Amalgamated.
Motorists driving by on Dale Mabry Highway won't see the work for a while.
Crews first will smash lower sections of north end zone seats and work up. Then the crane will move counter-clockwise around the stadium, leaving the final blows for luxury boxes on the east side.
Eagle looked for a movie company willing to pay for rights to film the stadium going up in a spectacular explosion, said Bob Shulnburg, the demolition firm's owner and president.
But producers of the Lethal Weapon series weren't ready, and others didn't agree to foot the $200,000 in extra costs, he said.
"We had a lot of wishers, but none of them ever came to the table," said Shulnburg, whose company also tore down the old Orange County Courthouse in Orlando and will demolish a convention center in Memphis.
As much as 80,000 tons of stadium concrete will be crushed into one-inch-diameter rocks and be carted off in some 16,000 dump truck loads, he said.
Most will end up as road base for Florida highways, said Richard Bazinet of Angelo's Recycled Material, which paid Eagle to break up and carry off the rubble. Some could be sold as landscaping rock, he said.
Greco fended off lingering questions about spending tax money on palatial Raymond James.
But with NFL teams going for more than half a billion dollars, he said, the Bucs clearly would have left Tampa without a new stadium.
"The whole thing makes no sense, but my friends in the NFL said we'd lose that team," Greco said. "Now, we can compete with anyone on any basis."
Construction honchos raced up after he got out of the crane to explain why it took so long to smash the suite just over the southeast entrance. The plywood roof had unusual spring; the ball hit a column.
"I thought the whole thing would just crumble," Greco said.