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Stadium rose despite challenges

It was a bumpy ride to get
the stadium financed and built.

photo
In its early stages, the new Tampa Community Stadium (now Raymond James Stadium) was little more than an idea on a piece of land south of Houlihan's. [Times files, 1997: Skip O'Rourke]

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1998


TAMPA -- It's easily forgotten now, in the heady highs that Super Bowl hopes bring.

Fall Sundays are supposed to be fun Sundays now. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have new stars, new expectations and a new stadium.

Who cares to remember now that Raymond James Stadium almost didn't happen?

In January 1995, Palm Beach financier Malcolm Glazer bought the team for $192-million, the highest price ever paid at the time for a professional sports franchise -- for a team with one of the worst records in professional sports.

Glazer immediately saw a problem -- Houlihan's Stadium.

To end the years of football futility, to make their investment worthwhile, the Glazers said they needed the extra revenue new stadiums provide.


photo
Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer (left) gets an autographed half-centsales tax poster from Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura in 1996.
[Times files, 1996: Ken Helle]
After initially promising to cover "about half" the cost of a new stadium, Glazer and his sons, who had been put in charge of the Bucs, launched a seat deposit drive. The idea was to have Bucs fans pay a fee for the right to buy tickets.

Glazer hoped to sell 50,000 seat deposits, but when just under 33,000 seat deposits were sold, Glazer's sons said they were "devastated."

Government officials worried that the Glazers would try to soothe themselves by going to another NFL-hungry city.

"They were obviously talking to other communities," recalls County Administrator Dan Kleman. "They were looking for a financial package that would make financial sense for them."

Negotiations brightened in March when Glazer signed a deal to build a $168-million stadium. The deal was contingent on local government approval and the passage of a rental car tax.

The state Legislature killed that deal by rejecting the rental car tax, arguing that the county should raise its own taxes if it wanted to build a football stadium.

For Henry Saavedra, then finance director of the Tampa Sports Authority, it was the darkest moment.

"I figured there was no way they would stay," said Saavedra, now the TSA's executive director.

The Glazers were insisting on a stadium, but two questions remained: Exactly how should the stadium be paid for? And how could the public be convinced the price was worth it?


photo
Former Tampa Mayor William F. Poe tried with all his legal might toblock the stadium's contstruction.
[Times files, 1991: Victor Junco]
Commissioner Joe Chillura said the answers to those questions came as he was eating dinner at a restaurant with his wife and two sons.

"My wife looked at me and said, "You all right? It looks like you're in a daze,' " Chillura said. "I said, "No, I just figured out the answer to these problems with the Bucs. Look at that line. Look at all the different things on the menu. That's the solution. We've got to come up with a buffet-style proposal where everybody would get a little something.' "

That idea became the community investment tax, a 30-year sales tax that would pay for schools, jails, parks, police equipment and, of course, a new stadium.

Chillura and the County Commission then agreed to hold a referendum on the tax. That decision set up a crucial vote on Sept. 3, 1996.

For those who wanted the team to stay, the stakes were high.

Enter former Tampa Mayor William F. Poe.

Poe filed suit in an effort to block the sales tax referendum, saying the state Constitution forbids the expenditure of public money to benefit a private entity such as the Bucs.

A week before voters went to the polls, Glazer agreed to sign a 30-year lease if the referendum passed and Poe's suit was rejected.

The referendum passed by a solid 53 percent to 47 percent margin.


photo

Breaking ground in 1996: Monsignor Laurence Higgins, Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.
[Times files, 1996: Fraser Hale]
For stadium backers, the joy and relief of the referendum's approval was short-lived.

Poe filed another suit on Sept. 26 asking Circuit Judge Sam Pendino to declare the stadium deal unconstitutional. On March 21, 1997, Pendino ruled partly in Poe's favor, singling out a provision in the agreement giving the Bucs the first $2-million in non-football revenue produced at the new stadium.

As the Bucs and government officials were revising that agreement so it would conform with Pendino's ruling, Poe appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Poe's appeal once again threatened the financing of stadium construction, which already had begun. But the Supreme Court ruled against Poe, re-establishing the constitutionality of the $2-million clause and removing the final obstacle to stadium construction.

Recalling the legal and financial fight to get the stadium built, Saavedra said, "We're definitely on the other side of the mountain, smiling and looking back."

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