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John Crescimbeni
Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 22, 201412:00 PM EST

Council committee OKs extra $1.4M for Florida-Georgia game

by: David Chapman

City Council members didn’t question the value of the annual Florida-Georgia game to Jacksonville.

Instead, they were more concerned Thursday with the unexpected $1.4 million increase in taxpayer dollars to accommodate temporary seating for the game.

Or as John Crescimbeni called it, a “ridiculously huge, galactic jump in price” from the $280,000 the city paid last year.

When the city and the Jacksonville Jaguars agreed to $63 million in renovations to EverBank Field, the cabanas, water features and scoreboards project also stripped some permanent seating.

The problem?

The annual Florida-Georgia game requires a minimum of more than 82,000 seats, about 12,000 fewer than what is available now. That means temporary seating has to be installed each year for the game. Last year, it was 5,000 seats for $280,000.

Crescimbeni said when he asked the administration about the amount of the cost increase some time ago, he was told it would be proportional.

That wasn’t the case.

Joel Lamp, interim director of the city’s Sports and Entertainment Office, explained the past price was for a contract that’s been in place since 2008.

Just one company from Grand Rapids, Mich., responded to the new call for the temporary seating, lowering bargaining power.

In addition, a quicker turnaround for installing the seats because of a Jaguars game the previous week would mean $250,000 more. Labor costs also have increased, Lamp said.

And the seats being installed are top of the line, which both schools requested because of the quality of seat that was taken out.

All told, the increase was just under $1.4 million.

A breakdown of the costs was not immediately available.

Chris Hand, Mayor Alvin Brown’s chief of staff, acknowledged to members of the council Finance Committee the costs were higher than anticipated, but the expenditure is an investment to keep the game in Jacksonville.

The current contract ends after the 2016 game. Rick Catlett, president of the Gator Bowl Association, earlier in the day said the contract called for the seating requirements. Catlett said he’ll be talking to the schools at some point to negotiate another contract, but should Jacksonville pass it up, Atlanta and Orlando would likely step in.

When asked if anything could have been done to alleviate the issue during or prior to renovations, Catlett deferred to the city.

David DeCamp, Brown’s spokesman, said he was unaware of possible changes and the contract between the city and Jaguars spelled out the renovation plan.

The local value of the game, Catlett said, is $30 million to the local economy and council had to decide whether it was worth it or not.

“I think it’s worth it,” he said.

Council members must have agreed Thursday, because they didn’t slash the line item after lengthy discussion.

Committee Chair Richard Clark said he had “zero interest” in putting the annual game in jeopardy and said when new projects — like EverBank’s renovations — are approved, operational costs tend to increase.

Crescimbeni said his gripe wasn’t with the game, but with the lack of information associated with the increase.

Like Catlett, JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis vouched for the game and seating. The former council president went to the committee meeting to say the renovations were part of Jacksonville “thinking big” and it was important to maintain the economic development opportunities.

Council member Bill Gulliford, in response, said it wasn’t a matter of being in favor of taking a big step — council already did that approving the renovations. The concern was finding out such details after the fact and, had it been a corporate environment, “a head or two would have rolled.”

No heads rolled Thursday, but the committee did chip away at the price at the mayor’s expense.

To offset some of the costs, the committee voted to remove almost $113,000 worth of “Mayor’s Initiatives” from Brown’s budget. Those events include the annual holiday open house at City Hall, Mayor’s Environmental Awards, Education Summit and NBA Fanfest portion of the preseason basketball game.

The committee meets again today for an all-day session to review the proposed Capital Improvement Plans budget.

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