Six years after the first $1 billion venues plan, business and elected leaders are quietly working on a deal worth $60 million or more to build a soccer stadium while boosting money for the Florida Citrus Bowl, arts center and tourism marketing.

In 2007, the strategy of linking a new Amway Center arena, downtown performing-arts center and renovations to the Citrus Bowl stadium was a success, winning approval for all three in a way that might not have happened had each project had to stand on its own merits.

This time, leaders in the tourism community and the governments of Orlando and Orange County are again discussing a plan to tap into the county’s tourist-tax revenues of about $60 million — and perhaps joined again as one package. Details include:

  • $20 million in tourist taxes for a soccer stadium that would cost about $85 million in its first phase. The stadium is meant to bring a Major League Soccer franchise.
  • $12 million or more in additional tourist taxes for the Citrus Bowl renovation that was approved in 2007 but still has not begun. Stadium boosters want to include more amenities with the hope of landing more games and other events.
  • $25 million in additional tourist taxes for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The first phase is under construction, but there’s still not enough money to finish the last of three performance halls.
  • An unspecified amount of additional tourist-tax money to boost existing advertising campaigns meant to lure vacationers and conventioneers. That could mean more of the type of marketing the public-private Visit Orlando is already doing; an increased focus on international visitors, particularly Brazilians; more marketing aimed at luring sporting events; or a mix of all three.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said her plan is to bring all four items — the three venue proposals and a marketing-budget boost — to county commissioners in August.

Jacobs said bundling all of them together is a decision “you can’t force our board [of county commissioners] to make.”

However, Jacobs said, there is value in seeing “the big picture,” adding that, “discussing that all at one time does make a lot of sense.”

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer agreed. The projects weren’t necessarily planned as a package, he said, but should be talked about in concert because each one depends on the same pot of tourist taxes.

“A lot of things are coming together and being talked about all at the same time,” Dyer said. “The growing consensus is that we ought to have a bigger vision right now.”

The continued rebound of tourist taxes has given all sides more room to discuss these options. Compared with this same point in the last fiscal year, the six-penny resort tax has climbed from $121.4 million to $128.8 million in cumulative revenues, a 6.1 percent increase.

Top tourism leaders have been active in crafting a final blueprint, yet have said little publicly. For instance, Walt Disney World officials have met with both city and county leaders about the projects recently but would not comment on any one of them.

Disney officials say they are awaiting a report from Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association that analyzes projects and the availability of tourist taxes. But much like the rest of that umbrella group representing hoteliers, Disney wants marketing efforts to remain a top priority.

“We share CFHLA’s belief that discussions about the best uses of any projected [tourist tax] surpluses should include the need to not only maintain, but grow, visitation to Central Florida,” Disney spokesman Bryan Malenius said.

For the current fiscal year, about $36 million in tourist taxes is budgeted for Visit Orlando’s marketing efforts.

Jacobs said she wants to augment that as part of an effort to push the area as more than a place to take a vacation. The goal would be to highlight the convention center and the burgeoning simulation and medical-research industries.

CFHLA President Rich Maladecki late last month hosted an industry discussion on these ideas and expected an “action plan” to be drafted by last week. He could not be reached to discuss the proposal in detail.

So far, little opposition has emerged.

Jacobs had talked briefly about adapting the Citrus Bowl renovations to accommodate an MLS soccer team, but Dyer and team owners didn’t seem interested. So now Jacobs appears content to press the team for more private funding for a soccer-specific stadium.

Those negotiations opened the door for tourism and Citrus Bowl boosters to push for extra money for stadium renovations and marketing, too.

“You’re having a discussion about additional dollars to go to the venues,” said Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan. “And if you’re going to have that, it’s only fair to include the two projects [the Citrus Bowl and arts center] that have not been finished yet.”

Critics of publicly funded stadiums say it’s not uncommon for business and government leaders to come up with costly plans behind the scenes, then leave the questions of how to pay for it for later on with the public.

“The usual big question is where is the money going to come from. Cities and mayors usually like to leave that question for last,” said Neil deMause, co-author of “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit.”

“The strategy for this is to usually make it seem like a fait accompli, and then figure out where the money is going to come from.”

(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: florida, sports
Photo Credit: Orlando's main stadium is the Florida Citrus Bowl. Chris Gent / Flickr