Tampa Bay Rays
Fairgrounds stadium proposal has heavy hitters behind it
TAMPA - A large Washington-area developer and some local political heavyweights are behind a proposal to put a huge hotel, retail - and possibly baseball stadium - project at the Florida State Fairgrounds, documents show. Last week, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who is a real estate consultant, said he was representing a group that wants to build a commercial project on Florida State Fair Authority property. However, he declined to name the developers behind the proposals. This week, e-mails from the Fair Authority obtained by the Tribune list players in the proposal. They include Republic Land Development of Fairfax, Va., the Naples-based engineering and design firm WilsonMiller and a Tampa-based real estate group that calls itself the Land Sharks. It is affiliated with former Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan. David Mechanik, a local land-use attorney working on the project, confirmed that Republic Land would essentially be the project's developer. Its plans are in their infancy and would need to be approved by the Fair Authority. For now, they include building hotels, shops and restaurants on the roughly 350-acre fairgrounds at U.S. 301 and Interstate 4, said Sandy MacKinnon, the Fair Authority's chairman.Even after construction, the massive hotel and retail project would still leave about 125 acres for the annual fair. That would be enough for the fair, but would require some new parking garages. Early artist renderings show a light-rail system shuttling people around its various venues, MacKinnon said. A Major League Baseball stadium also is a possibility. In one of the Fair Authority e-mails from September, MacKinnon sounds bullish on the idea: "The wild card that still exist(s), and while we had nothing to do with throwing the fairgrounds into the mix on the Rays stadium, certainly space exists in the master plan for a baseball stadium, and it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity that would secure substantial revenues not only from such a stadium, but the entire project as a destination for the Tampa region." On Thursday, MacKinnon said a stadium has never been a focus of the proposed project and he doesn't want to provoke any hostility over the stadium between Pinellas County and Hillsborough County. The Rays are under contract to play at Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg through 2027. "That was mere speculation on my part," MacKinnon said of the e-mail Thursday. Among the players involved in the fairgrounds proposal, the deepest pockets seem to belong to Republic Land Development. According to its Web site, it is a major developer and landlord in Washington, D.C., and has leased space to the federal government. It is a subsidiary of Washington-based Republic Properties Corp., which has invested in or developed real estate worth $4 billion, its Web site says. People involved in Republic Land also have ties to The Mills Corp., a defunct mall company that built Sawgrass Mills outlet mall in South Florida and other malls across the United States. Mills Corp. made big waves locally a decade ago, when it proposed building a huge mall called Tampa Bay Mills on the fairgrounds property. At the time, it proposed relocating the fair to a spot in southern Hillsborough County, but it eventually dropped those plans. It's not clear if Republic Land's old ties to Mills played a role in its new interest in the fairgrounds, but two current Republic Land executives were not part of the project 10 years ago, Mechanik said. Stacy Hornstein, a development official with Republic Land, did not return calls Thursday. Also involved in the project are WilsonMiller, a prominent engineering firm with an office in Tampa's Ybor City area, and Duncan, the former Pinellas commissioner. Neither WilsonMiller's chief executive nor Duncan returned a call Thursday. Mechanik said WilsonMiller has done engineering work for Republic Land in the past and might have a similar role in the fairgrounds project. Developers are high on the fairgrounds because of its strategic location as a gateway to the Tampa area. MacKinnon foresees a day when a company could attend a trade show or other function at the fairgrounds and find accommodations nearby, rather than having to drive into downtown Tampa. "It could have a significant economic impact," said MacKinnon, who is a dealer of Yale-brand heavy equipment aside from Fair Authority chairman. "There is really nothing out in that part of the county that provides those sorts of facilities, that could provide overflow capacity for our conventions in Tampa." However, he insisted nothing is set regarding the project. The developer is expected to present its proposal formally to the Fair Authority in April. To comply with bidding rules, the authority also might have to allow other developers to present similar proposals for fairgrounds property, MacKinnon said. Greco and Mechanik have already met with Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson in Tallahassee on the proposed development. The state owns the fairgrounds property, and the Agriculture Department oversees the Fair Authority.
Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865.