florida citrus bowl

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11.19.14, FCS: Florida Citrus Bowl Ribbon Cutting, Orlando, FL

The first day of the newly renovated Florida Citrus Bowl. Less than a year after construction started, the stadium opened in preparation for its annual football game, the Florida Blue Florida Classic. It’s a huge improvement over the previous incarnation; the stadium is much easier to get around and more airy. Orlando should be proud of its new sports destination; I’m excited to see what new activity the stadium will bring to the city.

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The rebound in tourism that’s allowing construction to begin next month on a new downtown performing-arts center could also jump-start the long-awaited renovation of the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium.

If tourism continues to recover, money could start flowing to the aging stadium as soon as 2015 — far sooner than previously predicted.

Because the recession caused tourist tax collections to plummet, the stadium project has become the all-but-forgotten stepchild of the Orlando venues plan approved in 2007. It has been stuck on a back shelf while the city built the Orlando Magic’s Amway Center arena and struggled to find funding for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Without a significant tourism recovery, city officials had predicted that the $175 million renovation of the Citrus Bowl might have to wait a decade or more.

But Orlando officials think that tourism recovery has come, and sooner than expected. This week, city officials told the Orlando Sentinel that by early 2015, there may be enough money to pay for most of the stadium renovation.

“We haven’t given up on the Citrus Bowl,” said Rebecca Sutton, the city’s chief financial officer and the architect of the $1.1 billion financing plan for the three venues.

The 75-year-old stadium has no resident football team, but it’s the home field of the Orlando City soccer club and hosts the Capital One Bowl, Champs Sports Bowl and Florida Classic, as well as motor sports, concerts and touring shows.

It’s slated to receive new lower-bowl seating; 4,000 club seats; 10 new suites; banquet space; a ballroom; and new restrooms, locker rooms and concession stands.

“We’re very encouraged by the uptick in tourism,” Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan said. “We’d be delighted if there were some serious efforts to figure out how to finish the third venue.”

But the Citrus Bowl’s future is still far from certain.

Tourist-tax collections are increasing, and city officials expect to bring in $43 million during the next four years — enough to provide the missing funding for the construction of the first phase of the arts center. Groundbreaking is expected next month.

But under the terms of the original venues plan, all of the arts center’s funding must be in place before a dime of tourist tax goes to the Citrus Bowl. That means the second phase of the arts center comes first.

Preliminary projections from Orange County indicate the tourist tax could produce $20 million for the venues in 2015.

Orlando would likely build phase two on credit, just as a big chunk of phase one funding came from issuing bonds. The city would need about $7 million a year to make the annual payments for the construction of phase two.

That would leave as much as $13 million for the Citrus Bowl in 2015. Using that cash to issue bonds, it could be enough to fund about $130 million of the stadium’s renovation.

Here’s the problem: The tourist tax is so volatile the city can’t sell bonds based on uncertain predictions of how much will be collected in future years. To build the first phase of the arts center, the city issued bonds based on the credit of the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

But the CRA can’t issue more bonds, for either the second phase of the arts center or the Citrus Bowl. In effect, the CRA’s credit card is maxed out.

Mayor Buddy Dyer has ruled out tapping general revenues, or even risking Orlando’s good credit by issuing bonds based on the property taxes used for police, fire protection and other city services.

So, when it comes to the Citrus Bowl and phase two of the arts center, the city is like a worker who earns enough to afford house payments but can’t get a mortgage.

“We’ve got the repayment source, but we don’t have the credit source,” Sutton said. “We’ve got to figure out something else.”

Among other things, city officials are considering a financing mechanism most often used by school districts to build new schools that would involve setting up a new nonprofit corporation to issue the bonds.

Regardless, current projections show the first dollars won’t be available until 2015, so there’s time to study financing options, Sutton said.

Dyer assured the City Council last week that the Citrus Bowl is still a priority.

“We’re sitting in a pretty good position, if the [tourist tax] comes roaring back, to get started on that pretty quickly,” he said.