Jacksonville group calls stadium audible, but city calls timeout Mayor, council balk at changes in terms

June 23, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Backers of the NFL bid in Jacksonville, Fla., sensing that a better stadium deal might enhance their chances of landing an expansion team, asked their city council for five years of rent-free use of the Gator Bowl and an extension of a controversial "people mover" from downtown to the facility.

Touchdown Jacksonville! Ltd., the city's proposed NFL ownership group, said those and other improvements to its already negotiated stadium lease were necessary if it is to beat Baltimore and three other cities contending for the NFL's two expansion teams.

But the city's mayor has called for a timeout. Mayor Ed Austin rejected the deal, saying it would "expose this city to unreasonable financial and legal risks."

The two sides are negotiating a new deal and say they are near an agreement. But the request by Touchdown Jacksonville! demonstrates one of the city's liabilities in the NFL race: It is proposing to put the team into one of the nation's oldest stadiums.

The current Gator Bowl was built in 1947 and is home to the annual college bowl game of the same name. It has been renovated several times, and the city recently approved $49 million worth of improvements aimed at retaining the bowl game, a major economic force in the city.

But shortly after that was approved, Touchdown Jacksonville! said it needed $30 million more in renovations and a better lease, in part because of a higher than expected franchise fee set by the NFL.

NFL officials reject the notion that their franchise fee in excess of $140 million is to blame, and say they never told Jacksonville its stadium is inadequate, but have pointed out the competitive advantages of the new stadiums being offered in Baltimore and two other expansion finalists: Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis. Memphis, Tenn., the other finalist for one of the two franchises to be awarded this fall, is proposing to use a renovated Liberty Bowl, which was built in 1965.

When they made their initial application to the NFL several years ago, Touchdown Jacksonville! officials based it on a 30-year lease atthe Gator Bowl that called for: $50,000 a game in rent; a split of concession profits with 65 percent going to the team and 35 percent to the city; leasing from the city 10,000 parking spaces for $1 each to be resold at market prices; and allowing LTC

the team to keep all revenues from stadium advertising.

The new proposal by Touchdown Jacksonville! called for a 30-yearterm with no rent in the first five years, $500,000 a year in rent the next five years and $1 million a year for years 10 through 30.

The prospective owners also asked for all concession profits, a potential loss of $850,000 to the city, which would also pay for all game-day operation costs.

"We had a good lease and Touchdown Jacksonville! said we need thisand the mayor said, 'Wait a minute,' " said Jacksonville City Councilman Matt Carlucci.

"I don't know if they were shooting for the moon and hit the barn. But our city is negotiating something that is fair to Touchdown Jacksonville! and to the taxpayers," Carlucci said.

Extending the people mover -- a mass transit system that has notmet ridership expectations -- has been dropped, he said. And the taxpayers should see some return in rent, hopefully enough to pay off the bonds, he said.

The mayor also has said he wants protections for the city in the event construction costs run over projections, ticket and concession revenues that cover the city's operating costs, and city control over naming the stadium.

"I think we have some good negotiations going on. It looks like we are finally getting some good give and take," Carlucci said.

Touchdown Jacksonville! president David Seldin declined to comment on the negotiations, other than to say, "We're very optimistic we'll reach a fair and equitable agreement" by the end of the month.

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