Sports venues get no help from Florida Legislature
In the spring of 2013, International Speedway Corp., the Daytona Beach-based business that owns NASCAR racetracks around the country, set out to rebuild the Daytona International Speedway, its most important and iconic venue. The company told investors it would spend up to $400 million redeveloping its flagship track, installing everything from five expanded and redesigned entrances to more than 40 escalators and 14 elevators. Every seat in the stadium would be replaced.
ISC, which had turned a profit of $54.5 million the previous year on revenue of more than $600 million, hoped Florida taxpayers would help foot the bill. The state, after all, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past building and renovating other professional sports facilities around Florida. So that spring, company executives and lobbyists spent hours walking the halls of the Capitol, meeting with lawmakers and urging them to support a subsidy.
At times, ISC executives suggested the amount they would ultimately invest in the Daytona renovation depended in part on how much help they got from the state. “The challenge of our business (is) we’re a public company that owns 12 racetracks across this land,” Joie Chitwood III, who at the time was president of Daytona International Speedway, told a Senate committee in April 2013. “We have tracks in Phoenix and California and Michigan. And my job as the president of Daytona is to present the best business case to our board possible. That means we need to spend money in the state of Florida. Personally, I like the president of the track in Kansas — (but) I don’t want him to receive any money from ISC. I want the money in Daytona. And my job is to work with the state to present this case.”
International Speedway wasn’t the only sports business working the halls of the Capitol that spring. The Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars wanted the state to help cover renovation costs for their football stadiums. The Orlando City Lions wanted help building a soccer stadium.
All had projected budgets of at least $100 million apiece. Lobbyists for the teams and venues suggested to lawmakers that the projects could collapse without financial support from the state, says Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon. “This was pitched as economic development that was contingent upon the state being willing to provide these incentives,” he says.
Lawmakers appeared to believe them. Though it took an extra year of lobbying, the Legislature in 2014 passed a bill creating a “sports development” incentive program that allowed venues to submit applications to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which would then review them and recommend which deserved funding from the Legislature. Gov.Rick Scott enthusiastically signed it into law. “This program will not only create more jobs for Florida, but it will increase tourism in our state,” Scott said in a press release announcing the signing.
ISC, the Dolphins, the Jaguars and the city of Orlando all immediately got in line. ISC and the Dolphins asked for $90 million, Orlando $60 million and the Jaguars $30 million. The DEO passed the requests on to the Legislature.
Then, House Speaker Richard Corcoran blew it all apart. In early 2015, Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who was at the time the House budget chairman, killed the funding request. He has continued to block the issue since and has said he will not allow any stadium money to pass while he is speaker for the next two years. It was the first shot in what has become an all-out war Corcoran has launched against economic incentives, which he derides as corporate welfare.
So what happened? Each went forward anyway — without state money. ISC completed its $400-million redevelopment of the Daytona Speedway in January 2016. The Dolphins finished a $450-million renovation of Hard Rock Stadium that summer.
The Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville have made continuing renovations to EverBank Field in stages; a nearly $30-million renovation of the stadium’s club-seating areas, which, according to the team’s original application, is what the state incentives would have been used for, was completed in August. And the Orlando City Lions opened its $155-million soccer stadium in March; the team decided to privately finance the project, though it has raised some of the money through the federal EB-5 visa program in which foreigners who invest in U.S. projects can qualify for green cards.
Representatives for ISC and the Dolphins declined to comment. A representative for Orlando City Soccer did not respond to requests for comment. Mark Lamping, president of the Jacksonville Jaguars, suggested in a prepared statement that the team still expects to get help from state taxpayers in the future.
“Jacksonville’s municipally owned stadium was originally built utilizing equal contributions from state, local and private sources. As this publicly-owned facility continues to age it will require ongoing investment to extend its useful life. We would expect that future investment into this publicly-owned stadium will come from state, local and private sources,” Lamping said in the statement.