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The Venue’s Financial Fights

This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Republican Convention Guide.

The venue for this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa has been known by many names during its 16 years: the Ice Palace, the St. Pete Times Forum and now the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Its history is marked by money squabbles between a publicly financed arena and a privately owned sports team.

After four seasons in temporary venues, the Tampa Bay Lightning NHL hockey team moved into the $160 million Ice Palace in 1996. About $86?million of the cost (and another $35 million in subsequent renovations) came from state sales taxes, city parking revenue and county tourist bonds. A 75-cent surcharge was tacked onto ticket prices for arena events to repay the bonds, plus 1 cent from the city’s 5-cent tourist and development tax.

Lightning owner Anner Takashi Okubo – a Japanese businessman who pumped $90 million into the Lightning but never saw his team play – put the team up for sale in 1998, having lost almost $85 million. Management company Palace Sports and Entertainment paid $115 million for the team the following year.

The new owner sued to avoid a $3 million tax bill after arguing that the arena should be exempt due to its “public purpose,” but lost the case in 2001. County officials threatened to raise ticket surcharges to $3 to pay back public money, resulting in a standoff between owners concerned about falling revenue and public officials faced with the prospect of an expensive empty lot.

“We have to think what would happen if they did vacate,” County Commissioner Pat Frank said at the time, explaining that the arena would look “like a cold, empty fishbowl.”

In 2002, a new revenue source popped up when the St. Petersburg Times, the regional daily newspaper and former owner of Congressional Quarterly, signed a $30 million, 12-year deal to call the arena the St. Pete Times Forum. It was the first time a U.S. newspaper placed its name on an arena or stadium. Last year, the newspaper changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times, and the arena’s name switched to match.

By 2010, the team had gotten worse and was purchased by financier Jeff Vinik, who quickly embarked on a $40 million overhaul of the aging arena. Convention-goers will notice patios with panoramic city views and new seats with cup holders. Vinik has donated $75,800 to the Romney campaign – and says he doesn’t plan to ask the city for reimbursement for the renovation.

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