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Tampa cultural groups make pitch for downtown tax money

TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s idea to put millions in downtown Tampa tax dollars toward a potential Tampa Bay Rays stadium got iffier Thursday when the Tampa Theatre and Straz Center for the Performing Arts made their own pleas for some of that money.

Those two arts groups and other nonprofits on Thursday urged the Tampa City Council to keep its options open for the downtown tax dollars. Technically, the City Council was meeting as a separate body that controls the city’s special taxing districts, called the Community Redevelopment Agency.

A top city official, Economic Opportunity Administrator Bob McDonaugh, told council members that the money hasn’t been dedicated to any particular project so far — whether for a downtown park, public theater or a ballpark.

Still, the competing requests for that money could make financing a $500 million-$600 million stadium that much harder. Some members of the City Council sounded skeptical Thursday of putting any tax dollars toward a new stadium.

Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said her constituents are more concerned about foreclosures and unemployment than ballparks.

“When they talk about a stadium, (my constituents) would love a new stadium,” Capin said after Thursday’s meeting. “They just don’t want to pay for it.”

Numerous groups are eyeing a pot of tax money that currently is paying off the Tampa Convention Center’s bond debt. Those bonds will be paid off by October 2015, which could free up $12 million to $14 million per year generated from downtown Tampa property taxes.

Cultural groups such as the theaters want a piece of it. Supporters of parks and downtown beautification projects want it. And, of course, backers of a downtown Rays stadium want it.

Buckhorn on several occasions has promoted that latter idea, suggesting Tampa could use that annual tax revenue to issue up to $100 million in bonds for a new stadium. He’s been careful to say the city money might pay for millions in needed roads and infrastructure for a new stadium, but not for the ballpark itself.

To Capin, the mayor’s ballpark idea sounds too much like it’s a done deal. People are talking about the downtown tax money as if it’s already designated for a stadium, when in reality nothing has been decided, she said. She called for Thursday’s Community Redevelopment Agency workshop to hear from community groups about how they’d like to see the money allocated.

Among the downtown nonprofit groups that showed up Thursday were the Straz Center, Tampa Theatre and Tampa Museum of Art. The Florida Aquarium isn’t eligible for the downtown tax money because it sits just outside the downtown taxing district’s borders, but an aquarium executive showed up to support the other cultural groups.

Straz Center Chief Operating Officer Lorrin Shepard said the Straz Center raises money to support its operations and building upkeep, “but we can’t raise all of what is needed.”

Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa City Council member who chairs the Tampa Theatre, likewise said the theater has old wiring and an old roof.

“I want you to consider the theater,” she told the City Council members.

Thomas Hall, chairman of the Tucker/Hall public affairs firm, pushed the council members to consider building downtown parks to beautify the city.

“If we don’t do it now, we probably won’t be able to do it 10 years from now,” Hall said.

City officials seemed on the defensive Thursday, insisting that the $13 million a year generated from the downtown taxing district hasn’t been dedicated to a stadium or anything else. McDonaugh, the economic development chief, said it’s not even clear the downtown tax money will be available after 2015.

About half the money in the downtown taxing district — officially called the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area — comes from Hillsborough County. The city and county allocate the money to projects that benefit downtown.

For now, the city and county are still meeting to decide whether to keep the program alive past 2015, McDonaugh said.

McDonaugh didn’t speak against funding the Straz Center or the other arts groups, but did say the city already has steered millions toward them over the years.

Buckhorn was not at Thursday morning’s meeting and no other city officials advocated using the money on ballpark infrastructure. No one from the Rays appeared to be present, either.

If stadium advocates have designs on the downtown tax money, they likely will have to do a masterful job of lobbying City Council members. Several council members sounded sympathetic to the arts groups’ pleas Thursday. The Tampa Theatre, Tampa Museum of Art and Straz Center buildings all are owned by the city of Tampa.

“I hear the message of the cultural institutions that are city-owned loud and clear,” said City Council member Harry Cohen.

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