PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | Where is the stadium deal?

Published on January 15, 2024 at 3:12 pm

The tragicomic denouement of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ season, which saw an 8-3 start collapse toward a 9-8 final record, was not without its moments of dark comedy — and they weren’t all on the field.

Consider the tale of the 32-year-old woman who rammed her car into the team’s practice facility just a day after the team’s season ended in Tennessee.

The Jaguars told News4Jax that was an “isolated incident,” and let’s hope that’s the case, for the sake of the city’s capital improvement budget. 

Then there was the scene at Daily’s Place last week during an All Elite Wrestling event, when, multiple reports said, fans chanted, “Fire Baalke,” rendering a verdict on the Jaguars’ controversial general manager during the telecast by promoter Tony Khan, the son of the Jags’ owner.

Then there was the embezzling scheme that came to light late last year, in which Jags employee Amit Patel secreted more than $22 million from the franchise “to make hundreds of purchases and transactions with no legitimate business purpose.” 

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Per federal prosecutors: “He used the proceeds of this scheme, in whole or part, to place bets with online gambling websites, to purchase a condominium in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, to pay for personal travel for himself and friends (including chartering private jets and booking luxury hotels and private rental residences), to acquire a new Tesla Model 3 sedan and Nissan pickup truck, to pay a criminal defense law firm, and to purchase cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens, electronics, sports memorabilia, a country club membership, spa treatments, concert and sporting event tickets, home furnishings, and luxury wrist watches.”

Any of these issues would seem like an anomaly, but for a sports franchise that’s looking for the biggest capital investment in Jacksonville history, these mini-stories add to the larger unsettled narrative surrounding the team. 

During the fall, with the Jaguars positioned at one point for a top seed in the playoffs they ultimately didn’t make, the set-up couldn’t have been better for stadium negotiations to seek a 50-50 public buyin. 

Now though, it appears to be a case of the same old Jagwires, bumbling on the field and making unwelcome news off of it.

City Council President Ron Salem tells us that the team wants to move sooner than later on presenting a deal to the council, with an eye toward getting it through before he leaves office in July. That means something needs to be presented soon, because Salem wants a long period of public vetting. 

Think 60 days, including town halls/community conversations/charettes/whatever you want to call them, and a six-week cycle for council consideration.

It’s easy to imagine, and in fact it would be a good idea, to have a committee of the whole appraise the deal. 

Nothing against the Finance Committee or any of the other council committees, but before any proposal hits the floor for a vote, questions should be exhausted from all members, including those who confuse fandom for fiscal stewardship and those who might be more reluctant to give away the store to keep the franchise.

See, the thing is, we don’t know much more about what the team wants than we did when Lenny Curry was mayor and reporters, starting with this columnist, obtained the Jags’ proposal that contemplated more than $1 billion in city spend between the stadium refurbishment and the entertainment district the team wants to build around the facility.

The Jaguars and the Shahid Khan vehicle Iguana Investments originally envisioned a total investment that could cost as much as $2.068 billion, a number that could include stadium improvements costing between $1.2 and $1.4 billion, as well as between $550 million and $668 million for development of the “sports and entertainment district.”

We do know NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in town to affirm the importance of getting the deal done. And we know that Mayor Donna Deegan is comfortable with the progress of negotiations.

“We’re only just now getting to the point where we’re talking through revenue sources and what each of us may be responsible for. I really think that we have a great negotiating team in place, and I believe that the Jaguars are very open to working with us as well,” Deegan said recently on WJCT News 89.9’s First Coast Connect.

“I know a lot of people have said the Jaguars are going to say, ‘My way or the highway.’ I really believe when we get to the end of this agreement, we are going to see a great community benefit in what we are doing with them. I believe we will get to that agreement,” Deegan added. “Our hope is to get there, at least in structure, sometime in the spring, and I think we’re on track to do that right now.”

In theory, getting this deal inked would be key to Deegan’s re-election; though people grouse about the spending, plenty of them are loath to lose the Jags. That includes the mayor, who seems to be as big a fan of the franchise as her Republican predecessor. Though just as it was with Lenny Curry, it’s worth asking if being a fan and being a tough negotiator are mutually exclusive positions.

To that end, the mayor and the Jaguars need to — sooner than later — tell the people paying for this deal how much of their money will be spent, how it will be financed, the short-term and long-term effects the spend will have on other capital priorities. Because history tells us that the stadium tends to be a sponge that soaks up money for other needs, and interest rates tell us the project will be expensive not just in terms of hard costs but also the price of financing the money itself.

Ronald Reagan said regarding the Soviet Union to “trust but verify.” The same caution and prudence needs to be applied to this investment, and the people need to have an idea of what sacrifices they will make to ensure the city’s richest businessman is happy. Because, rest assured, there won’t be a public referendum component to this deal, and the politically ambitious members of the council will see building the new stadium as a way of building a relationship with the Jags’ ownership for their own future campaigns. 

Lead image: Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

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