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Proposed Fairground project includes hotel, indoor athletic complex

A Virginia company wants to reshape the Florida State Fairgrounds with an amateur sports village, a sports-themed hotel, water park, indoor virtual golf facility and a “restaurant park.”

One thing missing from Republic Land Development's proposal is a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. When the company first proposed redeveloping the fairgrounds four years ago, it envisioned a new Rays stadium there, but it has since backed away from those plans.

A committee of the Florida State Fair Authority, the board that oversees the fairgrounds, met Wednesday to evaluate Republic Land's offer to build a sports, hotel and entertainment complex on its grounds. The developer would use 123 of the fairgrounds' roughly 330 acres, leaving intact the annual fair's core area, the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater and Cracker Country.

The committee gave the company an initial green light on Wednesday and will recommend that the full Fair Authority continue to explore a deal with Republic Land.

The fair authority asked a Tribune reporter to leave Wednesday's meeting during negotiations with Republic Land, citing a state law that closes to the public discussion about a vendor's bid. However, fair authority documents show some of the company's plans for its first phase of construction, including:

*GoodSports Village. The anchor tenant would be a new sports-themed hotel and athletic complex operated by Sarasota-based GoodSports Enterprises. GoodSports is an affiliate of longtime hotelier Focus Hotels of Sarasota.

The company would operate a new 200-room GoodSports Hotel catering to business travelers during the week and amateur athletes in town for tournaments over the weekend. Next to the hotel, a 65,000-square foot sports field house would host basketball and volleyball tournaments, said Anthony Homer, a GoodSports Enterprises vice president.

*Water park. Documents provided little information about a proposed water park, other than it would sit on about 17 acres and would have a wake boarding attraction using a cable.

*Virtual golf experience. Republic's project would include an indoor “virtual golf experience,” developed in conjunction with an unnamed celebrity golfer. The documents don't shed much light on the idea, but competing virtual golf companies use simulators, which allow golfers to hit balls into a screen that shows fairways and greens of elite golf courses. The idea is to recreate the feel of playing on these courses.

Later phases of construction could include a restaurant park with multiple restaurants; Main Event Bowling, a Dallas-based chain of bowling/laser tag centers and big-box retail.

Republic Land's choice of an amateur sports venue as its anchor tenant was welcome news to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. Hagan believes the county has too few youth sports facilities to accommodate big tournaments, which he sees as a way to stimulate the economy. He's been working on a public-private partnership that would finance a major outdoor sports complex somewhere in Hillsborough County, likely with soccer or lacrosse fields.

Meantime, Tampa-based financier Bob Gries Jr. last year wanted to develop an indoor amateur sports complex near Tampa International Airport. However, people from the surrounding neighborhood rallied to kill the idea, arguing it would have generated too much traffic among other problems. Hagan said Gries still wants to build it, but hasn't yet found a suitable location.

Reston, Va.-based Republic Land Development surfaced as long ago as 2009, when it began meeting with fairgrounds officials. Its plan largely sat dormant for more than two years as the fair authority considered whether it wanted to redevelop the fairgrounds.

Republic Land's initial idea to build a Rays stadium became a “lightning rod” in the community, so the developer eventually dropped it, company senior vice president Stacy Hornstein said Wednesday.

The authority began exploring the fairground's redevelopment again in the fall as a way to pay for millions of dollars in upgrades to its deteriorating buildings. One other company, Sovereign Investments of Tampa, proposed a smaller development project that would have built an agricultural and entertainment hall for rodeos, motorsports events, livestock shows and other events. However, Sovereign Investments never formally submitted a proposal to the fair authority.

Barney Bishop, a well-known lobbyist for Sovereign Investments, alleged that the fair authority's process for evaluating developers favored Republic Land's more expansive development plan. Bishop could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

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Twitter: @msasso

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