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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Is Florida State Fair best use of valuable land?

TAMPA - More people are questioning whether the land at Interstate 4 and U.S. 301 is too valuable for its current uses alone: the Florida State Fair, RV expos and gun shows. The options run from doing nothing to adding just a few shops or billboards on the fairgrounds to moving the annual fair somewhere else to make way for a massive development. Adam Putnam, Florida's commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, said he will protect the fair's mission to serve youth and agriculture. But he's willing to consider all options for the property. Putnam noted the huge price that a Malaysian resort and gambling company paid for the Miami Herald's downtown Miami location, $236 million.
"If somebody wanted to give (the state) the kind of 'stupid money' that they paid for the Miami Herald property, I would listen," Putnam said Thursday. Members of the Florida State Fair Authority, a body that oversees the fairgrounds, have been considering development at the fairgrounds for more than a year. They want to renovate the fairgrounds' aging buildings, but can't come close to the $61 million they would need to make all the upgrades. A Virginia developer, Republic Land Development, proposed a solution last year. It would build a sports and entertainment complex at the fairgrounds worth upwards of $1 billion and lease land from the fair authority – creating a huge new revenue stream for the fairgrounds. The project hasn't gone anywhere in more than a year, though. Some members of the fair authority grew frustrated at the former state agriculture commissioner, Charles Bronson, who mentioned several bureaucratic obstacles to developing anything at the fairgrounds. Some fair officials are more optimistic now that Putnam leads the agriculture department. "I think Commissioner Putnam is open to anything that would be beneficial to the fair," Doyle Carlton III, chairman of the fair authority said, without criticizing the former agriculture commissioner. Putnam seemed open to development at the fair authority's Sept. 29 meeting. According to the meeting's transcript, he boasted about the land's value. "I don't know that it's ripe yet, but here – sort of the mega trends going on are that we are the most valuable piece of real estate in Central Florida," he said at the meeting, according to the transcript. "I mean, it's almost the intersection of I-4 and I-75 and a lot of people want it." If Florida expands gaming to allow big resort-style casinos – as some legislators want to do – interest in the Florida State Fairgrounds could surge more, he said in September. On Thursday, Putnam said he wasn't advocating any particular plan for the fairgrounds. He just wanted the fair authority to consider to the growing interest in the property by developers. Some ideas have included leasing space to billboard companies and leasing just a corner of the fairgrounds for development. Some people have floated the idea of moving the annual fair to another location to free up the land, Putnam said. He said there is no formal plan to do so, and he knows of no legislators pushing the idea. Putnam said he's not ruling out any ideas that might help raise revenue while keeping the fair intact. Stacy Hornstein, development director for Republic Land, said his firm still wants to build at the fairgrounds and is talking with prospective tenants. Pushing for the fair's relocation isn't "on our radar," but it's a legitimate idea, he said. "It's not a crazy kind of thought process," Hornstein said. "You've got a piece of ground and it's got a use. Does it always have to be that use?"

msasso@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7865

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