By Jim Bleyer
When the University of South Florida announced in May that management of its Sun Dome arena would be overseen by a Jeff Vinik enterprise, no details of the deal were reported in the local media.
As Tampa Bay Beat discovered, USF President Judy Genshaft and Athletic Director Mark Harlan desperately want the arrangement to remain clandestine. And the Tampa Bay Times, by not delving into the financial operations of the state’s fourth largest public university, is complicit in not even attempting to inform taxpayers.
By maintaining secrecy, USF avoids explaining the rationale for ditchng Spectra, a vendor with an exemplary track record in favor of a newly formed entity that has never contracted its services to any outside venue.
If the deal’s details became public, any fallout would reflect badly on Vinik and Genshaft, two of the Tampa Bay Times’ group of “untouchables.” It was revealed a few weeks ago that Vinik helped facilitate a $15 million losn to the economically flailing Times.
Tampa Bay Beat contacted the offices of Genshaft and Harlan with public records requests which, after several days, were denied. Attorneys for USF determined that the Sundome operation doesn’t fall under Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.
We received the following e-mail response from Associate Athletic Director Ralph Shick:
“Sun Dome Inc. is a direct-support organization of USF. Records of direct-support organizations are confidential and exempt from production under Chapter 119 pursuant to Section 1004.28(5)(b), Florida Statutes. The records requested below are all Sun Dome, Inc. records and are therefore confidential and exempt from disclosure under Florida law.”
Hard to believe this response is acceptable to USF alums who donate to the school or families of students paying full tuition. The mere letting of a contract should not be cause for alarm but the penchant for secrecy raises red flags.
Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties (TBEP), a spinoff of Vinik’s Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment (TBSE), took over the operation from Spectra on July 1. TBSE runs the downtown Amalie Arena.
Kevin Preast, Senior Vice President of TBSE Event Management, explained that TBEP was created to “oversee the management and programming of the USF Sun Dome.”
Apparently, there was no RFP, no bidding process, and only one potential vendor contacted. This from an institute of higher learning that feels slighted it was not recognized as “preeminent” by the State of Florida. USF’s whining about not obtaining that coveted designation was amplified in the Times news pages for days on end. Finally, a beleaguered Florida Board of Governors labeled USF as “emerging preeminent” which only makes sense to an academician.
“USF Sun Dome came to us and said that their management contract with their current vendors was expiring and asked us to take a look at it,” Preast said. “They were very interested in the transformation of our organization and our brand and wanted to see if we would be interested in helping them make the same transition.”
By hiding behind an alleged Sunshine Law exception, USF avoids explaining the switch from a proven vendor to a newly created entity.
“Spectra is very proud of the business that we have built at the USF Sun Dome over the last five years,” said Trent Merritt, former General Manager of the USF Sun Dome. “Following the 2011/2012 renovation, we undertook a highly successful rebranding campaign and subsequently took the venue to a nationally ranked Top 5 University arena and a Top 2 ranked arena in the state of Florida each year, with respect to bookings.”
“In doing so, we also exceeded the arena’s financial goals each and every year by a significant margin,” he said. graciously adding, “while we are disappointed in the decision to change management companies, we wish the best for the Sun Dome moving forward.”
The 37-year-old USF Sun Dome is a 55,000-sq.-ft., multipurpose on-campus facility. Under Spectra, the Sun Dome booked approximately 300 different events annually.