Change of Venue: Fix the Stadium

The recession taught me a humbling lesson: It’s the bed tax, stupid!

If you felt sorry for the college football players slopping around in the Citrus Bowl mud on New Year’s Day, your sympathies were misplaced.

For anyone sitting in the stands, the stadium’s problems went much deeper than the muck Penn State and LSU players sank in during the Capital One Bowl. The football field was a golf green compared with such dismal fan “comforts” as seats, restrooms and concession areas. You know, just the basics of every stadium.

This year the city of Orlando plans to spend $10 million on Citrus Bowl improvements, among them new stadium lights and synthetic turf, plus upgrades to some restrooms that predate indoor plumbing.

It’s a Band-Aid approach while waiting for tourism to rebound to pre-recession levels. Tourism tax revenues were to fund the original plan to spend $175 million on a complete makeover of the stadium. But the severe drop-off in hotel bed taxes, officially called the tourism development tax, has caused the renovation to be put off indefinitely.

Yet the city has come up with $130 million to spend this year on initial construction of the performing arts center. That money, plus the $10 million, could almost get the job done on the stadium.

Sorry, arts center supporters, but tough times call for unpopular decisions. The city should go all in on the stadium, using resources allocated to the arts complex. A modern Citrus Bowl would be an economic engine.

Back in 2007, during the debate over the three venues, I was of a different mind. I saw little value in a stadium that principally hosted three college football games a year—the Florida Classic, the Champs Sports Bowl and the Capital One Bowl.

Since then, you might say I had an epiphany. And, no, I wasn’t brainwashed by the tourism and stadium lobbies.

The recession taught me a humbling lesson: It’s the bed tax, stupid! When hotel occupancy is wobbly, Orlando’s venues don’t have a leg to stand on. Tourists are on the hook for our frills—the $480 million events center, the $425 million performing arts center and the stadium renovation—so we better find ways to get them back here in big numbers. Bruce Springsteen in concert or Notre Dame playing a regular-season game in a revamped Citrus Bowl could do that.

Now I wish the renovation had been launched first, with the stadium’s coming out party set for the Dec. 29-Jan. 1 bowl dates. A newly redone stadium would have been a magnet for new events to commit to appear in it this year, helping prop up bed tax revenues in what is forecast as another down year for tourism.

In contrast, the city’s bare-bones $10 million upgrade plan will do nothing to improve the Citrus Bowl’s ability to compete with modern stadiums in other cities.

Orlando wasn’t even competitive in its bid to be selected as a host city for a future FIFA World Cup, the super bowl of soccer. We were recently eliminated from consideration as a host site in the United States’ bid to land the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

It’s cause for alarm when the vacation capital of the world, a host city during the 1994 Cup, can’t beat out the likes of Indianapolis or Nashville to make the list of 18 possible U.S. sites for Cup games.

I have to wonder if that pigpen LSU and Penn State played in eliminated Orlando from the U.S. bid. Or maybe we just got thrown out because our stadium is a dump, turf conditions notwithstanding. Either way, Orlando lost a chance at an economic windfall estimated at $400 million to $600 million for hosting World Cup games.

Who could blame the bowl games for taking their combined economic impact of $80 million to, say, Indianapolis if the Citrus Bowl isn’t renovated in four years when their contracts expire?

The city can’t afford to lose any more time—and many more millions of dollars—by continuing to neglect the stadium.

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