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Developer of fairgrounds project balks at red tape

TAMPA — Land developers have wanted a piece of the Florida State Fairgrounds for years because of its prime location near two interstate highways and its acres of unused land.

However, their plans always collided with the onerous bureaucratic rules that govern who can build on the state-owned fairgrounds and how. For example, plans for a massive outlet mall in 2000 and a $1 billion shopping and sports complex in 2010 went nowhere.

Now, a new company is charging that the fairgrounds’ board is taking so long to evaluate its $100 million “superbarn” proposal, which would stage rodeos and tractor pulls, that it threatens to make the project unfeasible. The cost of bond financing may shoot up by the time the company gets the green light to build its new arena, said Barney Bishop, a lobbyist for would-be developer Sovereign Investments.

“In our opinion, the problem has been just getting the board to make a decision,” Bishop said.

Florida State Fair Authority board member Sandy MacKinnon admits the board has moved slowly in the past. But in this case, he said Bishop and his partners have made unreasonable demands, including wanting an exclusive right to deal with the fair authority.

Sovereign Investments is a new company made up of several prominent members, including Tampa land development lawyer Jim Soble, Bishop, who used to run the powerful business lobby Associated Industries of Florida, an investment banker from the financial firm Piper Jaffray, a Charlotte, N.C., bond lawyer and a Tampa engineer.

They approached the fair authority — a volunteer board under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — in June more aggressively than most other developers. They wanted a one-year exclusivity clause, giving only them the right to evaluate developing on 50 acres of fairgrounds land along I-4.

There, they would build a 200,000-square-foot agricultural and entertainment hall that could host rodeos, motorsports events, livestock shows and potentially concerts, as long as the concerns didn’t violate the rights of the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Bishop said. Other buildings could include a hotel and educational and administrative buildings, he said.

Best of all, the group said, it wouldn’t require any taxpayer money, and the lease payments Sovereign Investments would make to the fair authority would help the fairgrounds spruce up its deteriorating buildings.

Sovereign would raise money for construction by issuing bonds, with the bond debt paid off by arena ticket sales. All told, the arena and any infrastructure at the fairgrounds would probably cost more than $100 million, Bishop said.

However, things have gotten testy between the investment group and some on the fair authority board as things dragged on. The board balked at some of Sovereign’s requests.

“Why should we give them exclusivity and give them priority treatment,” MacKinnon said. “We’d have competitors all over us. We could probably even get sued.”

Bishop showed up at a fair authority meeting a few weeks ago and demanded to speak at length about the proposal, even though he wasn’t on the agenda, MacKinnon said. Eventually MacKinnon, who heads the board’s long-range planning committee, called him “out of order.”

Now, Bishop is criticizing the slow pace with which the fair authority is proceeding. The board hired a New York consulting firm to evaluate how it should take bids from competing developers and evaluate them. That consultant recommended a process that should finally yield a winning developer in July, fair authority documents show.

That’s simply too long to wait, Bishop said. By then, interest rates on bonds may rise and make the cost of capital too high, Bishop said.

“Taking eight months to make a decision, that’s not needed,” he said.

Also, Bishop said most government entities have established systems for collecting proposals from different developers. Some governments use a “request for qualifications,” some use an “invitation to bid” and some use an “invitation to negotiate.”

The fair authority, though, found something called an invitation to participate to solicit bids — something Bishop has never heard of.

Doyle Carlton III, the fair authority’s chairman, said the fair board has a delicate task in protecting taxpayers’ interests while also being open to opportunities.

“Again, I can see from an outsider’s or even an investor’s perspective it can seem like we’re moving very slowly,” Carlton said. “I don’t think we are.”

The last group that wanted to build at the fairgrounds, a Virginia company called Republic Land Development, had proposed a shopping, hotel and sports complex in 2010. For a time, it also proposed a Tampa Bay Rays stadium there, although it backed off that idea.

Its grand vision stalled because the former state agriculture commissioner showed little interest and because of bureaucratic hurdles in leasing public land to a private company.

It wasn’t clear this week if Republic Land still wants to build at the fairgrounds, because representatives didn’t return calls.

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Developer of fairgrounds project balks at red tape