Jaguars, Jacksonville need transparency to finish high-stakes stadium deal | Gene Frenette
Up on the computer screen in Mark Lamping’s office, with a teal background, it reads in bold letters: “Jacksonville Jaguars,” and underneath that, “Stadium Of The Future.”
It’s accompanied at the bottom with logos of the team and their architect/construction partners.
This is essentially like the cover of a book, whose contents feature artist renderings of a transformed and renovated TIAA Bank Field at a cost that could exceed $1 billion.
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Lamping — the Jaguars’ president and point person on all big franchise projects since owner Shad Khan bought the team in Dec. 2011 — is chomping at the bit to put the most ambitious and costly project to a city-owned building on public display.
For now, it remains mostly a closed book, to be scanned only by the Jaguars’ top gatekeepers, their inner circle and various stakeholders like people at the Gator Bowl, along with administrators at the universities of Florida and Georgia.
The reveal for everyone to see will likely happen in the next few weeks, sometime after the results are in from Tuesday’s mayoral election between Democrat Donna Deegan and Republican Daniel Davis.
One of them will have a major influence on how the negotiations play out between the Jaguars, city officials and the City Council on what figures to be a polarizing stadium deal. And riding on the execution of an agreement is the biggest piece: a lease extension that potentially keeps the Jaguars in Jacksonville for decades to come.
“This process [before negotiations] is very close to its conclusion,” Lamping told the Times-Union in a 90-minute interview. “This stadium has reached the end of its useful life. We believe that we can do a renovation in a way that it delivers almost all the benefits of a new stadium, but at a significantly lower cost.
“Our vision is the equivalent of a gut rehab of a house. I think it’s premature to talk about stadium cost. We know exactly what it’s going to cost, but we don’t know if that’s exactly what’s going to be built. We need to have some reckoning with the city. We don’t know if the city’s vision is going to be the same.”
Lamping outlined numerous details about the proposed stadium, comparing it to palatial So-Fi Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, a 298-acre mixed-use development featuring retail, commercial office space, a hotel, residential units and outdoor park spaces. HOK company, a renowned sports stadium designer, was selected over seven other architects in December to renovate TIAA Bank Field.
“The vision is similar to SoFi in that it is an open-air stadium on the sides, but with a permanent roof that provides weather protection and shade for the fans,” said Lamping.
Among the amenities are concourses almost four times wider than at TIAA Bank Field, a stadium designed to take advantage of outside winds and bring a breeze into the seating bowl, as well as filtering out 70 percent of the sunlight to increase fan comfort. The swimming pools aren’t going away.
Lamping believes all the stadium’s bells and whistles will appease what the fan base has been demanding for years, primarily relief from the oppressive heat, especially during the first two months of football season.
But for that to become reality, the team, the city, politicians and an armada of lawyers/lobbyists must come to terms on a stadium deal amenable to all parties.
Since it involves potentially the biggest taxpayer expenditure in Jacksonville history — the Jaguars are tight-lipped about any proposed cost breakdowns — that figures to be a massive undertaking.
Transparency is paramount
Before the Jaguars and the city begin negotiations, and regardless of whether Deegan or Davis is in the mayor’s office starting July 1, it’s imperative to a successful outcome that Jacksonville’s old-guard politics gets the boot.
There can be no top-secret, wink-wink negotiating behind closed doors. The Jaguars are painfully aware of how bad the failed Lot J deal (at a cost up to $450 million) made them look, along with Curry, because an attempt at a hurry-up offense between them backfired.
That project negotiation didn’t initially go through the Downtown Investment Authority, but instead was an attempt by the Jaguars and the mayor’s office to push it through quickly. There was an absence of town hall meetings and community participation.
A deal many felt was a foregone conclusion, though it required a super-majority Council vote, fell one vote short of passage.
“My advice to [the Jaguars] will be the same I gave to them with the Four Seasons,” said at-large city councilman Matt Carlucci, referring to the incoming luxury hotel owned by Khan, slated for completion on the St. John’s River by 2026. “I told them they should have a lot of town meetings. When you take things out into the community, and are being transparent, that’s how you gain favor with people who are skeptical about the whole thing.
“If you don’t talk to people about it in the open, you’re asking for trouble. Trust is the most important asset that business people and politicians can have. If you do anything that begins to lose that asset, you’re done.”
Lamping briefly acknowledged the mistakes the Jaguars made with Lot J and says they learned a valuable lesson, which was successfully applied to the Four Seasons deal and a revised development of The Shipyards approved by the City Council.
Now, the stakes are much too high on the stadium deal, for both the Jaguars and the city, to not eventually reach agreement on a major investment that will positively impact northeast Florida on multiple fronts besides football games.
Carlucci and the Jaguars agree this is a seminal moment in Jacksonville history. By whatever means necessary, they must reach a fair agreement on the proper sacrifices and commitment involved on both sides to ensure the Jaguars stay in Duuu-val.
“If the Jaguars were to leave, it’d be the gut punch of all gut punches to the city of Jacksonville,” said Carlucci. “We have to find a way to make [a stadium deal] happen.”
Curry muddies the water
Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry threw a curve ball into the impending negotiations this week by doing interviews with two Jacksonville radio stations, 1010XL and WOKV, and discussing hypothetical outcomes to a stadium deal. The biggest one that became a talking point was about the Jaguars playing games outside of TIAA Bank Field if an agreement requires them temporarily moving out of the stadium.
Curry discussed a “best-case scenario” in which the Jaguars would be displaced for two years and still play games in Duval County, one of which is a viable option and the other likely a longshot.
In addition, Curry put out an erroneous timeline, saying a potential two-year exile would happen in 2025 and ‘26, which Lamping amended to 2026 and ‘27. The one-year difference is because if the universities of Florida and Georgia pick up the two-year option on continuing to hold their game at TIAA Bank Field, it would expire after the ‘25 season.
“The goal would be to play somewhere in Jacksonville,” Curry told 1010XL. “Those discussions are happening, but two years is the goal. I do know that they are considering certain sites that are local that could accommodate them for at least two years.”
Let’s just say the Jaguars and Lamping — who had discussions with UNF president Moez Limayem that one university insider described as more cursory than substantial — weren’t doing cartwheels over Curry engaging in speculation of what amounts to a potential outcome, not a guaranteed one.
“The problem with dealing out of what Lenny said is everybody is talking about the two years and where the team is going to play, but that’s so far down the road,” said Lamping. “We got to decide if we’re going to do the stadium renovation first.”
Also, the issue Curry raised didn’t take into consideration the massive financial consequences of the Jaguars possibly playing games at the University of North Florida soccer stadium, Hodges Field, or across the street at the Baseball Grounds, the largest other Jacksonville sports venues with capacities around 10,000.
Lamping estimated that to even bring those facilities up to NFL standards, which would require a vote of 31 likely skeptical owners, would cost “in excess of $100 million.”
So who would pay for that expense? In that scenario, it’s more apt to fall on the city than the Jaguars.
“I’m not here to negotiate that, but we’d want to get [a rebuilt stadium] done as quickly, as efficiently, and as least disruptive as we can,” said Lamping.
Both mayoral candidates might have complicated matters by reacting to Curry’s premature speculation. Davis tweeted out the Jaguars “playing out of town for two years is a non-starter for me,” and Deegan reacted to that by saying: “During construction, I expect our team to play in Jacksonville as they have for nearly 30 years.”
That all sounds good on the campaign trail, but the reality is the Jaguars may not be displaced at all. Another option, also at a more expensive price tag, would be for the TIAA Bank Field renovation to take place over four years without the team going anywhere.
But there’s a caveat to that, too. It would mean a start-stop construction process that Lamping says would also increase the stadium deal by over $100 million. It’s another reminder this stadium issue is an onion with a lot of layers.
Disruption, discomfort on horizon
While politicians may stump for the Jaguars never playing games outside the 904, it’s probably more realistic for them to temporarily play at stadiums closer to being NFL-ready like at the University of Florida in Gainesville or Camping World Stadium in Orlando than any Jacksonville venue.
“Whether you build a new stadium or renovate an old one, it’s going to result in a disruption for the team and its fans,” Lamping said. “The degree of disruption we’ll experience in Jacksonville with a stadium renovation and how many seasons will be impacted is a function of the scale of the renovation, the cost and the renovation schedule. The Jaguars are committed to a path that results in the least disruption to the team, our fans and the community.
“If you were going to add seats to Hodges Stadium or the Baseball Grounds, it’s not just bringing in temporary seats. You have to bring in the infrastructure the NFL mandates and both of those solutions would be in excess of $100 million. We’ve done the due diligence on how all this could work. This doesn’t come without a big expense associated with it.”
No matter how a stadium deal is reached, whether the construction takes two or four years, it’s going to involve tradeoffs that are less than perfect.
Curry jumped the gun by going for what amounted to little more than an attention grab. The fallout and impact on future negotiations were not well received by those intimately connected to those discussions.
“That is a moot point if we don’t get a stadium deal done,” said Lamping. “Then [parties can proceed toward] how do we sequence the construction and how it impacts games.”
Carlucci, a Republican who has endorsed Deegan for mayor, was more pointed in his criticism of the lame-duck Curry.
“It’s way too early to be doing this, especially in the middle of a campaign [for mayor],” said Carlucci. “I’m not sure why Curry did that, but it was probably politically motivated.
“There are a lot of complicated issues that go into these negotiations. No mayor is going to negotiate this [stadium deal] by themself. This discussion has got to be out in the open and it must involve the community.”
If the Jaguars did go to Gainesville or Orlando, or a combination of both, for a two-year period, those cities have no reason to not embrace having NFL games.
Steve Hogan, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports in Orlando, told Mike Bianchi on FM 96.9 The Game: “We’d love to have the Jags. If they call, we’re going to be all over it. Our mayors [Orange County’s Jerry Demings, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer], myself and Florida Citrus Sports will move heaven and earth to make this happen.”
Important reminder: the Jaguars will not be playing any games in Gainesville or Orlando without a stadium deal and lease extension already in place. Plus, the Jaguars would hardly be the first NFL team to play outside their backyard during a stadium renovation.
In 2002, the Chicago Bears played 140 miles away at the University of Illinois while Soldier Field was rebuilt. The Carolina Panthers also traveled 140 miles for home games at Clemson during their inaugural 1995 season.
After Hurricane Katrina damaged the Superdome in 2005, the New Orleans Saints played at two venues — 80 miles away at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge for four games, and 540 miles west to the Alamodome in San Antonio for three games.
All those venues were larger stadiums that not only lessened the blow financially, but also met NFL standards as temporary homes away from home. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Jaguars and the city, if necessary, can reach an accord on that possible option.
A multi-purpose facility
Since the Jaguars first brought up the stadium issue in 2016, Khan has been vocal in expressing his desire to deliver a venue that will serve multiple entertainment purposes.
Beyond keeping the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville and increasing the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl’s chances to host a college football playoff game, the Jaguars’ brass remain bullish on what a renovated stadium could do to enhance downtown and overall quality of life for everybody.
Khan, who also owns Fulham FC in the English Premier League, wants to attract more international soccer matches with USA teams. A renovated stadium will surely put Jacksonville in position to lure bigger concerts with A-list musical artists.
All those non-Jaguar entertainment options are important, but the biggest component might be bringing a neighborhood to life around TIAA Bank Field with offices, retail shops, residences and becoming a destination for reasons beyond football.
“This is not just to get a lease extension and a new stadium for the Jaguars,” said Lamping. “The goal here is more than a stadium.”
Carlucci, who voted against the Lot J deal and in favor of the Shipyards, has a reputation for being steadfast when it comes to how public money is spent. He figures to be on high alert during these negotiations.
“Taxpayers have to see more than what’s being done to improve the stadium,” said Carlucci. “How is this going to help us do other things in the stadium besides Jaguars football games? The stadium has tentacles that go throughout the community in different ways.”
Nearly three decades after Jacksonville Municipal Stadium went up — and after every NFL franchise has either renovated its stadium, built a new one or has a deal in place to do so — the spotlight intensifies on the Jaguars and the city to do something about a decaying TIAA Bank Field.
Huge stakes on both sides
The good news is the Jaguars and Jacksonville have every incentive to get this done.
Khan has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in previous stadium enhancements and downtown development. The idea of packing up and moving would be a personal loss of significant magnitude, regardless of what false national narratives have been spun about the future of the Jaguars and potentially moving elsewhere. That includes London, where they have played a home game annually since 2013 except during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to boost their local revenue.
Even if a stadium deal gets done, Lamping acknowledged the Jaguars wish to continue playing in London because they believe it benefits both the team and Jacksonville. However, it's ultimately up to the NFL to decide whether the tradition continues beyond the 2024 season when the current contract expires.
"It has benefitted the Jaguars in terms of revenue and building our brand, and it's benefitted the city through job growth and global awareness of Jacksonville," said Lamping. "London has become part of the Jaguars' DNA. It isn't 100 percent in our control. It's also what the league wants to do."
For Jacksonville, the new mayor and the council, the stakes may be even higher. Do they really want part of their legacy to be the Jaguars — at a time when the team is ascending behind potential superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence — leaving on their watch? The loss in prestige for a city with only one major pro sports team would be devastating and incalculable.
Lamping says he’s ready to sit down and negotiate a deal right now, though he offered no details about what the Jaguars might propose in terms of taxpayer dollars or if Khan's investment in development around TIAA Bank Field will impact how the team frames the deal in negotiations. But he minces no words about what’s on the line.
“We need to be assured that there’s a stadium solution,” said Lamping. “If we’re not confident there’s going to be a stadium solution in Jacksonville, we need to make sure there’s a stadium solution someplace else. The time is upon us. We have all the confidence it will be here, but if not, we need to start figuring out where the hell it’s going to be.
“This stadium is not getting any younger. Kicking the can down the road is not an option.”
The pressure is on city leaders and the Jaguars’ brass to negotiate in good faith, calmly arrive at some kind of stadium solution, and hopefully celebrate life with the Jaguars well beyond this decade.
This is a different kind of Super Bowl for Jacksonville. Only this time, the players aren’t wearing uniforms or helmets.
The stakes are enormous. For both the intense football fans and ordinary citizens with no skin in the game, it feels like the future of Jacksonville is reaching a crossroad.
Either the Jaguars and Jacksonville renew their marriage vows with a rebuilt stadium and lease extension, or they can deal with a breakup that won’t be pretty for anybody.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540