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January 26, 2012

Wezen-Ball

Homeless Shelters in Marlins Park?

by Larry Granillo

As Big League Stew and others have pointed out, professional sports teams with publicly-funded venues in Florida (including spring training facilities) may soon be forced to deal with an obscure law if one state senator has his way...

In 1988, the Chicago White Sox wanted a new, publicly-funded stadium and the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, was desperate to lure Major League Baseball to its borders. After all, St. Pete had made the acquisition of an MLB team a top goal of theirs at the start of the decade. To that end, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to begin construction of the Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) in 1986, despite having no concrete leads as to a possible tenant. It would cost $85 million and be funded through a city and county tax. As you can imagine, when the storied White Sox looked like they were ready to leave Chicago for greener pastures, city and state officials fell over themselves in a rush to woo the club to the Sunshine State.

Somewhere along the way, officials remembered that their $85 million bond didn't include enough money for certain baseball-specific features. From a June 10, 1988, St. Petersburg Times article:

The stadium would be paid for with an $85-million bond issue backed by city and county tax money, but that price tag didn't include accessories that baseball teams need.

Left out of the initial cost were things like artificial turf and a scoreboard. When the negotiations heated up earlier this year with the White Sox, St. Petersburg decided it needed an extra $30-million to complete the stadium.

For a dome meant to host baseball games, artificial turf and a scoreboard seem pretty important. But $30 million isn't anything to sneeze at, especially in 1988, so the request was not guaranteed to be approved. The officials went to work in securing the funding, hiring an outside firm to do much of their lobbying in the state House. In May 1988, with the help of "$265.9-million in unexpected tax revenues", the House approved funding for the extra $30 million, though not unanimously:

Rep. Helen Gordon Davis, D-Tampa: "We don't have enough money for child care, we don't have enough money for child abuse, we don't have enough money for the homeless, and you're going to give $30-million for a franchise because now you're all included in the bill? Well, I think that is pretty unconscionable ..."

The Senate was a tougher obstacle, but it didn't take long for a deal to be worked out. On June 8, less than two weeks after the House approved their bill, the Senate passed its own version of the bill. One major component had been added on. From the July 2, 1988, Ocala Star-Banner:

The measure approved by Florida lawmakers last month establishes a program that would enable any Florida city or group that acquires a professional sports franchise to get money for a stadium.

However, in order to benefit from the specific $30 million package, a city must sign a lease with a franchise by Jan. 1, 1989, that would agree to begin playing in Florida by the 1991 season. Additionally, to qualify for the money, local governments or private groups would have to pay at least 5 percent of the cost of the stadium project.

If St. Petersburg isn't able to lure the White Sox and use the money, baseball fans aren't the only ones who will lose out. The measure including the money also required that the Florida Suncoast Dome - or any other pro sports arena built with state assistance - be open as a shelter for the homeless when it is not being used for other events.

That's right. The bill that then-Governor Bob Martinez signed into law giving $30 million to the Florida Suncoast Dome also required all "pro sports arena[s] built with state assistance" be used as homeless shelters when "not being used for other events".

It's this clause, in a 24-year-old piece of legislation, that's causing a bit of a stir today. Florida state senator Mike Bennett recently introduced a bill that would require stadiums that fall under this law to comply with the original law by the end of the year or risk paying $250,000 a month until they do. One can only imagine the logistical problems that would occur if all of Florida's professional sports teams were suddenly forced to provide homeless shelters on their off-days.

Few seem to think Bennett's legislation will go through. The Associated Press, as quoted on jacksonville.com, writes: "The bill doesn’t have much chance of passing. It must be heard by three more committees before it could come to a floor vote, and that many is usually considered a kiss of death."

Or, as Duk at Big League Stew wrote: "I don't suspect that this bill will pass, though. The rich folk behind the ballparks have way too much lobbying power. The homeless advocacy does not. It's simple math."

The law is the law, though. Unless there's some kind of language in the original 1988 legislation that press reports then and now are missing, publicly funded stadiums in Florida are required to offer some sort of homeless shelter. Even if Bennett's legislation doesn't pass, the state of Florida will have to address this in some way. However they do it - maybe it's a one-time fee for each facility or an on-going tax paid by the organization, among many options - it looks like playing sports in Florida may get a little more expensive (and all because the Chicago White Sox decided to bluff the state of Illinois into paying for a new stadium).

Related Content:  Money

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