New deal struck for Citrus Bowl renovation project

ORLANDO, Fla. - With a brand new plan to bring long-awaited renovations to its 76-year-old Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando officials are hoping the time is finally right to host a a national championship game or one of the new college football playoff games.

After several years of false starts, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs announced a plan Monday that will finance a projected $175 million facelift for the stadium that currently hosts the Capital One Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl games annually.

"I think our community, if we have the right facilities, can host anything that the world has to offer," Dyer said. "We have the best arena in the entire world. I'm not promising the best stadium, but we will have a B-plus, A-minus stadium that we can host just about anything that can be hosted in a stadium.

"So between those two facilities and the convention center, there isn't anything that we can't compete for."

A plan to fund the renovations was originally struck between the city and county in 2007 as part of a larger project that was also going to provide money for the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center and help build the new Amway Center. That plan called for the city to issue bonds to pay for the construction work, with the county paying yearly debt on bonds using tourism taxes.

The economic downturn caused that money stream to evaporate, with the city no longer being able to secure credit to borrow needed money for all three projects. The Citrus Bowl renovations became the immediate casualty.

Dyer and Jacobs met on June 6 during a public face-to-face meeting in which they agreed to put together a deal to begin Citrus Bowl renovations. Both left that meeting with an agreement to back up debt for construction with both the city and county funding contributions.

"We did very little negotiation before that meeting. We negotiated where we wanted to sit and that was about it," Jacobs said. "After that, it was really up to Mayor Dyer and I just to sit down and have a frank conversation.

"A lot of people think that's awkward to do in front of an audience, but fortunately Mayor Dyer and I pretty much have to have all of our frank conversations with our boards that way. So what you saw is what it took."

Under the deal announced on Monday, which will go before the Orlando City Council on July 9 and Orange County commissioners on July 10, the county will keep $12.5 million in a reserve should debt payments for the renovations come up short.

The city will issue bonds using revenue from tourism taxes and also will provide the credit source to back the stadium bonds. Property taxes will not be used as a credit source.

Dyer said bonds are expected to be issued in 2014, with construction beginning in either January or February of that year. The hope is that it will then be complete in time as not to interfere with any subsequent bowl seasons.

Among the upgrades expected for the 65,000-seat stadium are: new suites and about 8,000 club seats; more restrooms and concession stands; and new banquet and ballroom spaces.

Florida Citrus Sports runs both the Capital One and newly-named Russell Athletic bowls.

CEO Steve Hogan said that with the upcoming upgrades, the stadium should be able to generate $250 million in revenue each year, with 70 percent to 80 percent of that money coming from visitors' spending money in Orlando.

Hogan was a collegiate commissioners' conference in Chicago two weeks ago when Dyer and Jacobs first revived renovation talks.

"There was no question that (news of the talks) reverberated through the room," Hogan said. "It was kind of a beacon of light and hope in that marketplace because many of them respect Orlando for the destination that it is."

Hogan said that getting a projected conclusion date for the project was critical to FCS being able to position itself to get in on future college bowl game talks.

"Most major sporting events are planning three, four (or) five years out," he said. "So if you don't have some certainty on that date, you can't go and start having the conversation. So I'm excited about the fact that we can all start joining arms and pitching Orlando now."

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