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Phil Alessi (Photograph by Chris Coxwell for Tampa Bay Life)

Phil Alessi: In the Dough! 1989 PROFILE

(NOTE–We heard the sad news tonight that legendary Tampa businessman, baker, boxing promoter and entrepreneur Phil Alessi died today, Sunday, May 6, 2018. I dug into my archive for this extensive profile I wrote about Phil, published in Tampa Bay Life magazine’s June 1989 issue. There will be a lot of tributes to Alessi–a man I interviewed many times over the years–but few will have quotes from George Steinbrenner and a prescient reference to Donald Trump. Alessi was always available when I called and I will always treasure the time I spent with him.–Bob Andelman)

By Bob Andelman

October 31, 1988

At last, upscale grocer Phil Alessi’s greatest secret can be revealed: His wife shops at Simon Schwartz Supermarket, not the Alessi Farmers Market.

That’s not all. Drew Alessi has even talked to her ever-acquisitive husband about adding the neighborhood supermarket to his own stable of food stores.

“I told him once that Simon Schwartz was having trouble, that he should buy it and I’d run it,” says Mrs. Alessi.

Alessi didn’t bite at that opportunity, but the owners of Simon Schwartz would be wise to occasionally look over their shoulders. Phil Alessi is gaining on everyone.


The latest surge of Phil Alessi’s entrepreneurial activities began in July 1987 with the opening of the Alessi Farmers Market in Carrollwood. Where else could you find
— and sample — angel hair pasta, kiwi jam, handmade sausages, unusual cheeses, wines, salad dressings and Phil’s favorite cannolis? Alessi claims to sell more fresh fruit and vegetables than any 20 supermarkets. And he says his seafood manager has saltwater veins.

“This operation would do well in the jungle,” boasts the 45-year-old businessman. “People would still come.”

When Phil Alessi and Mickey Duff had closed circuit rights to the Tyson/Spinks fight, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner changed his plans from seeing it ringside with Donald Trump in Atlantic City to hosting a private party for 100 at Malio’s in Tampa. Tampa Tribune Sports Editor Tom McEwen, who watched the short fight sitting between Alessi and Duff, later wrote a column about evening.

So successful and popular has the market become that when the city of St. Petersburg was searching for catalysts to return the glory to its downtown Pier, it turned to Alessi (and to Cesar Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia Restaurants).

Smart move. The Pier in August and drew 500,000 people in its first month and the Alessi Cafe, daiquiri bar, bakery and other food outlets there turned a profit after just five weeks. (The farmers market took more than a year.)

Suddenly, farmers markets are the cure for what ails cities all over the Tampa Bay area. There’s a deal in the works to bring Alessi’s market to downtown Tampa as part of a restaurant/nightclub complex. Brandon, Lakeland and Palm Harbor have extended similar opportunities. Alessi and concert promoter Jack Boyle (of Cellar Door Productions in Fort Lauderdale) want to build an amphitheater at the Florida State Fairgrounds. And he wants a greater presence in downtown St. Petersburg, possibly on the ground floor of the under-construction Barnett Tower.

In the meantime, Alessi plans to re-invent the main Alessi Bakery on Cypress Street in Tampa. It already operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day and has 120 employees who prepare breads, rolls and pastries for 150 wholesale accounts including Holiday Inns and the Specialty Restaurants chain. But Alessi, who owns the block across the street (he used to live there), proposes to build an enormous bakery/deli on the site, something like Wolfie’s in Miami Beach.


Business is booming for Alessi. But personal setbacks have cast a long shadow over his successes.

Particularly painful was the September arrest in Tampa of his eldest son, John, on charges ranging from racketeering to trafficking in cocaine and marijuana.

John, 25, one of four Alessi children, was arrested on evidence gained through a court-authorized wiretap. He was one of 24 people picked up on similar charges, although John was described as “the central figure,” according to a Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department spokesperson. He was recorded on the telephone allegedly discussing drug deals from Miami, St. Petersburg and Ruskin to Chicago, Raleigh, N.C., and Short Hills, N.J.

Bail for John was initially set at $1.3-million, later reduced to $120,000. But Phil Alessi said no. He would not pay “10 cents” to bail out his son until John expressed remorse over his actions.

“Somebody needs to kick his ass, make him wake up,” Alessi sharply tells his lawyer on the phone, several weeks after John’s arrest. “Maybe it’s time he gets acclimated to that environment. Open his eyes.”

So for more than a month, John Alessi sat in jail.

“He’s had trouble with the law in a lot of things,” says Alessi, following his telephone conversation. “Four years ago, I told him that if he ever got in trouble with the law that was drug-related, I would never help him. … My ex-wife said, ‘What are people going to think?’ and ‘How embarrassing.’ I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what it does to our business, it doesn’t matter what they think of us. What matters to me is John. I love him — he’s my son and I’m going to do the best thing for Johnny.”

John has been arrested nine times since 1982 on charges ranging from driving with a suspended license and possession of drug paraphernalia to strongarm robbery, possession of cocaine, aggravated assault with a firearm and resisting arrest with violence. This is his first time behind bars. (In other cases, charges have either not been filed or he has been given probation or community control.)

People who know him call John Alessi “Mr. Personality.” His stepmother, Drew, says that John is “absolutely delightful.”

“But he doesn’t have a whole lot of depth,” she adds. “I used to tell Phil that what terrifies me about Johnny is, he’s not immoral, he’s amoral. We have an 8-year-old. If (John) had ever offered (drugs) to his brother, I’d be on him with all fours. That really frightens me.”

Of Alessi’s other children, Dina, 23, runs the Alessi Bakery on Cypress. Phil Jr., 21, oversees the bakery at the Pier. John, Dina and Phil Jr. are from Alessi’s first marriage. He married Drew 14 years ago and they have one son, Jason, the 8-year-old.

Only John has given the family cause for concern.

“I can sit down with Johnny for four or five hours and he’ll explain things, why he did ’em,” says Alessi. Then his son will insist he’s going to get a frest start, get on the right track. “He’ll say, ‘Yeah, Dad, but I’m not going to start this Monday. I’m going to start next Monday because this week I’m going to a concert in Miami.'”

Father and son had a deal last spring where Alessi would back John in a business to manufacture and sell cannoli shells on the wholesale market. After three months, John lost interest. He worked sporadically in the farmers market, but was frustrated that he was expected to work his way up from the bottom and not receive special treatment as the boss’ son.

“I tell Johnny that I find it ironic that your brother and sister came out of the same environment you did. So let’s stop making excuses. Look in the mirror and say, ‘I, John Alessi, am the reason these things happen.’ When you do that Johnny, then you have a start on being an asset to society. Until that time, son, you’re not ever going to be a success.”


Last summer, Phil Alessi had problems of his own.

The New Jersey Casino Control Commission questioned his familiarity and contacts with the late Santo Trafficante Jr., alleged to be the head of organized crime in Florida until his death. They used Alessi’s visits to Trafficante’s home — despite the baker’s steadfast insistence that he was simply delivering cannolis to a sick friend — as a reason to deny Alessi’s bid to promote boxing in Atlantic City.

“That was bullshit,” says Mickey Duff, a British boxing promoter who also manages John “The Beast” Mugabi and has co-promoted more than 25 bouts with Alessi. “To attach him to crime is ludricrous. He’s not short of money. His income is visible, not invisible.”

Alessi’s first response was to let the issue drop. “It was a very innocent sitution, a situation that I was insensitive to,” he says. “I’d known Santo for 25, 30 years. My impression was that he admired what I did. That was genuine. I never recognized him as the character he was. He was a very kind man, always saying to me, ‘Never get involved with undesirables.'”

It was Duff who convinced Alessi to fight for the New Jersey license.

“I told him, ‘It’s a slam on your character,” says Duff. “He was getting a bum rap. If you walked into an Atlantic City casino and shot off a gun, it’d be even money you’d hit a gangster.”

“It wasn’t a matter of the license anymore,” says Alessi, “it was my integrity that was questioned. You talk about my family, gosh, they’ve all worked hard. I wasn’t going to let them take away from that. They said I’ve dealt with guys in boxing that were associated with the mob. What the hell do I know? A guy might (manage) a boxer, the guy fights for me so I pay the guy. They tried to create a scenario … It’s stupid. They were really pulling at straws. They came down here and scrutinized my whole life. The scrutinized my bankers, they went into my safety deposit boxes, scrutinized every company I have. They tried to associate me with drugs because I’m in the fishing industry and I have my own boats. Now, isn’t that ridiculous? I’m not hiding anything.”

On the strength of depositions from Tampa beer distributor Art Pepin, former FBI special agent Phil McNiff, Santo Trafficante III, nephew of the reputed mafioso and Tampa Tribune Sports Editor Tom McEwen attesting to his good character, Alessi was awarded the license he sought.

“He’s a friend of mine,” says McEwen. “I was surprised that so much was made of it. He works his ass off.”


Alessi got interested in boxing by going to closed- circuit TV bouts with his father. But partner Duff thinks that being a boxing promoter appeals to Alessi on a much different level than making money or simply being a fan of the sport.

“He likes the limelight, as all entrepreneurs do,” says Duff. “You can open 10 stores and nobody will know you’re alive. But you make somebody an offer of $1-million to fight
somebody and hold a press conference, you’ll be in all the papers.”


To look at Alessi would not bring thoughts of pro boxing to anyone’s mind. He’s a big man, of course, 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds (down from 300 a few years ago). But there’s no
doubting he grew up on a cannoli and Cuban bread diet although he’s no longer the fat, hustling kid with the big mouth a lot of native Tampans remember from his youth.

“I try to watch myself because I do a lot of sampling to get a true taste of something that’s special,” says the admitted foodaholic. “Whether it be any creative formulation — a steak sandwich, brittle — I’ll taste it.”

Dinner with the Alessis is usually found on the road. Since the days when Drew was involved in day-to-day business, before Jason was born, they have rarely supped at their modest Spanish-style home in Palma Ceia.

Drew and Phil met in 1971 when he owned a nightclub called King Arthur’s Lounge in Tampa and she worked there as a cashier. They married 2-1/2 years later and although the honeymoon was hardly romantic, it was pure Phil: “We spent a week in New York looking at bakery equipment,” recalls his bride.

In the early days, Drew played devil’s advocate to her husband, the eternal optimist.

“Everything can’t be that good,” she’d tell him. But usually, things went Alessi’s way. “Now I don’t need to play that role.”


Notes on Phil Alessi:

He is a registered Democrat.

His friends include Tom McEwen, restaurateur Bern Laxer, developer Dick Beard and automobile dealer Frank Morsani.

He often describes himself as “retired.” According to his wife, that means the business day starts at 7 a.m. instead of 5:30. It still ends after 6:30 p.m.

He’s a lousy, nosy restaurant diner, always poking around in the kitchen, looking for new recipes and asking about volume. On the other hand, friends say he picks up checks faster than anyone else they know.

Relaxation comes on a fishing boat off Cortez every Friday afternoon with friends and family. Exercise comes occasionally on a stationary bike at home.

When he wants to get your attention or make a point, he flails his arms, slapping at the intended listener’s arm.

One of four children, he is the only one who doesn’t have a college degree. Two of his sisters — twins — are school principals. The third is a teacher. His brother is a pharmacist. Phil dropped out of Tampa Jesuit High School.

His automobile of choice is the Lincoln Town Car. He drives it about 40,000 miles a year going back and forth between his businesses.

He’d rather watch a good boxing match than eat a Napoleon, but with cannoli, it’s a close call.


Alessi’s taste buds were educated long ago to know good from bad. His grandfather, Nicolo, began baking for the people of west Tampa in 1925. The work later fell to Alessi’s father, John, and his brothers and sisters. The Alessi Bakery business grew over the years, but nothing like it would when Phil bought out the family in 1972 at the age of 29.

Before that happened though, Alessi had a lot of living to do.

As a teen-ager, he spent a summer vacation at Clearwater Beach catching and selling pinfish for bait. (He now owns nine commercial boats and sells 100,000 pounds of grouper and snapper per month). After quitting school, he hit the road with pal Sam Costa, bowling over local yokels.

“We made a lot of money. Sam was the bowler — quiet. I was the big mouth, the promoter, braggish, carrying the big bag of money that everybody wanted to take away,” he says.

(The two now share ownership in a West Palm Beach bowling alley and plan to build one in Tampa. Alessi has a 190 bowling average.)

Returning to Tampa, Alessi and another pal, Rico Urso, promoted concerts by Al Green, the Drifters and others.

“We brought the original Drifters into the old Palladium Ballroom,” he recalls. The ballroom was not far from the site of what is now the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. “That was a Saturday and it was the first concert I ever did. Sunday, we went out in the woods, Thonotosassa. Thirty years ago, that was the sticks. We had a joint pack-jammed. All of a sudden there was a raid — they were selling moonshine in the back! So Rico gives me a bag of money and a gun and he says, ‘Anybody comes in that door, shoot ’em!’ ‘My God,’ I said, ‘Anybody comes in that door I’ll probably shoot myself.'”

(Alessi Promotions had a piece of the action when Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. played the USF Sun Dome last fall.)


Phil Alessi could never be satisfied with just one business.

At 18, he opened his first bakery independent of the family — Phil’s Bakery. Then came several Cakebox Bakeries and independent sandwich shops. Along the way he developed the interest he and his father shared in boxing into yet another career: boxing manager, promoter and gym owner. (The last Alessi Gym closed in October.)

At 27, he announced his intentions of being a millionaire before he was 30. He was.

When Alessi took over the old family operation, he changed his own stores’ names to Alessi Bakeries. Fire closed the original bakery in west Tampa and Alessi made the Cypress store his main location. He later closed the smaller outlets, a precursor to the development of the Alessi Farmers Market in Carrollwood and Pier shops in St. Petersburg.

In addition to all these businesses, Alessi also manufactures rum balls for a mail-order company in Wisconsin, wheels and deals in real estate, builds boats, has the concessions rights at the USF Sun Dome and Florida State Fairgrounds, promotes tractor pulls and monster truck shows across the country, has exclusive rights to closed-circuit televised boxing in Florida (the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks bout grossed $2.3-million), sells boxing packages to the USA Cable TV network and represents a growing stable of professional athletes, including local baseball stars and Olympians Ty Griffin and Tino Martinez. He employs nearly 800 people.

New business ideas occur to Phil Alessi faster than Mike Tyson can swing his fists. “Phil works so fast, he may have had two or three meetings on something and he’ll come to me and say, ‘Here we go,'” says Rudy Rodriguez, the man whose job it is to track and organize the ever-growing Alessi empire.

“A lot of times,” says Alessi, “I’m involved in 10 meetings a day and they’re all different. I have to get adjusted to every one of them: the bakery department, the bottom line in the meat department, creativity in the concession business, whether to send our boats to Santo Domingo. The people I deal with in our boat business aren’t interested in the bowling alley. The people in the bowling alley aren’t interested in the festive marketplace and the people in promotions aren’t interested in the farmers market. I have to keep everything in perspective.”


To every successful man, there are limitations and Phil Alessi has a few. He’s nearsighted. He’s a diabetic. And he has learning disabilities that have made reading and writing a tremendous chore.

“I’ve never written a letter in my life. I might mess up my grammar or something. It doesn’t matter. But if you’re trying to be perfecto, you let somebody do it who’s good. I have people who can write some of the finest letters on earth,” he says.

Asked if he reads much, Alessi says he listens to tapes of authors reading their books aloud. That’s where he learned about J.C. Penney, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Bill Lear and
Albert Laske.

“I used to read things four or five times to make sure” he understood them, admits Alessi. “Some people can read things one time. Things that are very important to me, I want to make sure I comprehend it right. I’ll read it again. I do what it takes to make sure I understand exactly what I’m reading.”

Rudy Rodriguez, Alessi’s right-hand man, was unaware of his boss’ specific learning disabilities.

“You know, as far as writing business letters, I can’t say. Part of my job is to handle his business correspondence. If he had lunch with George Jenkins (founder of the Publix Supermarket chain and an Alessi hero), he’s not going to write a letter, he’ll pick up the phone and say, ‘George, I had a great time.’ He’s on the phone constantly,” says Rodriguez.Part of Rodriguez’s job is to boil down contracts to the real nitty-gritty.

“He likes to cut through the B.S. of a three-page contract,” says Rodriguez. “He’ll say, ‘Rudy, what does this mean to you?'”


Almost daily tours of the bakery, farmers market, Pier and fairgrounds give the entrepreneur a chance to see and be seen.

Employees — and there isn’t one he doesn’t seem to know by name — get greeted with a “Hiya, Ed, how we doin’?” It’s a cheery Southern familiarity and pleasantry.

On a recent inspection of his operation at the St. Petersburg Pier, Alessi is introduced to Arnold Breman, who is having lunch with his family at the Alessi Cafe. Breman, director of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, is ecstatic.

“I shop at your place all the time,” says Breman, referring to the Tampa farmers market. “You have to open a place in North Pinellas.”

Alessi tells Breman that he has talked with developer Charles Rutenberg about doing just that, although nothing is firm. Then Alessi turns the tables, complimenting Breman on
his facility and says he’d like to promote some concerts there. The two exchange cards and promise to get together soon.

Later in the day, walking through the farmers market, Alessi talks about creating synergy among his employees and about creating “win/win” opportunities for himself and his business partners.

“Win/win is longevity,” he believes. “When you make money with people and they make money with you, they keep banging at your door. There’s opportunities coming to us every day that, when I was young, I’d give my right arm to have. Today we turn ’em down. We don’t have time.”

He points to the olive salad in the deli and notes that it comes from his aunt’s own recipe. And that he was making deviled crabs when he was 8.

In the bakery, time stops.

“I still love the bakery as much today as when I was 6 years old. It still smells good. … I still create things. I go to my people and I say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ They don’t tell me any more that they don’t think it can be done. I’m pretty convincing.

“They know that I know every product,” he says of the people working in this department. “If something is wrong, they know that I know who is responsible. I can look at every product we have and evaluate it immediately.”

Alessi’s advice to newcomers at the market bakery is to try Robert Jorge’s cakes.

“He’s got this flair,” says Alessi. “He’s — I guess — a replacement of me. He comes up with different things every day.”

Jorge says he’s learned a lot from the boss. “I haven’t met anybody who has such respect for quality,” says the master baker. “He knows exactly what he wants, how he wants it.

“When he’s in doubt about certain things, he samples,” adds Jorge. “And when there’s something that looks good, he’s there, believe me.”


George Steinbrenner was introduced to Phil Alessi several years ago by the Tribune’s Tom McEwen. It seems that the owner of the New York Yankees and chairman of the Board of American Shipbuilders in Tampa had the closed circuit television rights to a couple of Muhammad Ali fights late in the champ’s career and McEwen suggested to Steinbrenner that he give this young fella Alessi a shot at co-promoting.

“Pretty soon,” says Steinbrenner, perhaps overstating the case, Alessi “became one of the biggest boxing magnates in the country.”

Last year, when Alessi and Mickey Duff had closed circuit rights to the Tyson/Spinks fight, Steinbrenner changed his plans from seeing it ringside with Donald Trump in Atlantic City to hosting a private party for 100 at Malio’s in Tampa. McEwen, who watched the short fight sitting between Alessi and Duff, later wrote a column about evening.

Put Steinbrenner in Alessi’s corner.

“I’m a great admirer of his,” says the Yankees owner. “I like guys who are doers. He sets his mind to do something and he does it — with quality. He’s in a city of doers and he is certainly right at the top of the list. He’s a fine young man.”


Nicolo Alessi would probably have been surprised to see all his grandson has done in 45 years, making the Alessi name as well known and respected as any Lykes, Ferguson, Thayer or Gonzmart.

He is one of a generation of young businessmen — Trump, Ted Turner and others — who have taken modestly successful family businesses and carried them in directions that previous generations couldn’t have dreamed possible.

“The heritage is something,” says Alessi. “I cherish that. When I was young, I hung around with a lot of kids who did a lot of bad things — drugs, stealing, breaking and entering. A lot of my friends did that. But the one thing that always kept me from doing that was my family. My mom and dad and his father and mom, his brothers and sisters worked so hard that I didn’t think I was entitled to abuse that hard work and reputation that they had.

“Now I feel that I have contributed to that reputation,” he says. “The good Lord has given me a knack. And he’s instilled in me ambition and the ability to do things nobody else has done.

“I love what I do. I’ve turned losers into winners by sheer persistence. I have a philosophy that you never lose until you quit.”

Phil Alessi (Photograph by Chris Coxwell for Tampa Bay Life)
Phil Alessi (Photograph by Chris Coxwell for Tampa Bay Life)

Phil Alessi profile by Bob Andelman for Tampa Bay Life, June 1989
Phil Alessi profile by Bob Andelman for Tampa Bay Life, June 1989

Phil Alessi letter of thanks to Tampa Bay Life magazine, Bob Andelman

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Copyright 2018 by Bob Andelman
The Making of a Blockbuster: How Wayne Huizenga Built a Sports and Entertainment Empire from Trash, Grit, and Videotape by Gail DeGeorge

Wayne Huizenga’s World: Excerpt from “Stadium for Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball”

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: What follows is an excerpt from my very first book “STADIUM FOR RENT: Tampa Bay’s Quest For Major League Baseball,” which was originally published in May 1993 by McFarland & Company. An updated, expanded 2nd edition of the book was published in 2015 by Mr. Media Books. It is available in paperback or ebook wherever great books are sold. — Bob Andelman)

“I’m no rabid baseball fan. I’m an average guy, maybe not even average. I’m not going to sit there and talk to someone about so-and-so’s batting average. That’s not my game. I’m a businessman.” — H. Wayne Huizenga, Chairman of the Board, Blockbuster Video, Florida Marlins

The death in 1989 of Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, the man who brought professional sports to Florida, might have dealt a crippling blow for baseball expansion in the southern part of the Sunshine State had it not been for the emergence of H. Wayne Huizenga.

The Making of a Blockbuster: How Wayne Huizenga Built a Sports and Entertainment Empire from Trash, Grit, and Videotape by Gail DeGeorge
The Making of a Blockbuster: How Wayne Huizenga Built a Sports and Entertainment Empire from Trash, Grit, and Videotape by Gail DeGeorge. Order now by clicking on the book cover above!

Huizenga was the embodiment of the American dream. A college dropout who dreamed large, he bought a garbage truck in Fort Lauderdale and formed his first company, Waste Management Inc. It became the largest garbage company in the world, of course; Huizenga didn’t do anything small.

He left the company in 1984 with 4-million shares of stock worth an estimated $150-million. In February 1987 he bought into a Texas video rental company with a handful of retail outlets and a fuzzy notion of becoming a nationwide chain of video superstores. Two months later he took over the company and fine-tuned the picture. Soon, Blockbuster Video became as synonymous with renting videos as McDonalds is with Big Macs.

Blockbuster caught on quickly, expanding across the United States by building new stores or buying competitors. Almost every day, a Blockbuster Video store opened somewhere. By mid-1992 there were 2,935 stores in operation and more coming on-line daily. Other chains competed on a regional basis, but none could match the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, chain’s name brand recognition coast-to-coast. In 1991, with Huizenga as its chairman of the board and chief executive officer, Blockbuster Video grossed $1.5-billion in sales. Entertainment Weekly abruptly ranked Huizenga the ninth most important person in the U.S. entertainment industry.

And Blockbuster was mighty in other ways. Early on, Blockbuster management made a decision to avoid X-rated and even some R-rated films. Its refusal to stock The Last Temptation of Christ in the mid-’80s made news and deflated the grosses for the film’s producers. The chain stressed family values and themes. A movie that wasn’t stocked on video by Blockbuster after its theatrical run wasn’t going to earn much money.

Anyone who earns blockbuster bucks — U.S. News & World Report estimated Huizenga’s net worth at $600-million in 1991 — is going to have a few dollars left over. But Huizenga isn’t a man to spend money freely. He spends money only to make more. That’s why Huizenga bought half of Joe Robbie Stadium (JRS) for $5-million (and assumed responsibility for half its debt) and a 15 percent interest in the Miami Dolphins for $12-million in March 1990.

“When I approached Joe Robbie about buying into the stadium — or buying the stadium, because at first I wanted to buy it — he showed me drawings and a model of the stadium,” Huizenga says. “That stadium was designed for baseball from day one. The only thing was, the retractable seats weren’t put in. I looked at the economics of bringing baseball to the stadium. You put another 81 events in the stadium, bring another two and a half million people in, all of a sudden that made the stadium investment look very attractive.”

He called his good friend Carl Barger, a member of the Blockbuster board of directors and, more important, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“The more questions I asked, the more [buying into the stadium] looked like a good thing to do,” Huizenga says. “When I signed the agreement with the Robbies, there was about a three-month lag from the signing to the closing. [During that time] I got more and more interested in baseball. So when word got out that we were going to close the deal, not only did we say we’re going to buy part of the stadium but we’re going to go forward and try to get an expansion team.”

One of the first people Huizenga told about his baseball plans was Frank Morsani, the man who tried to bring a team to Tampa Bay.

“I met with him in Jacksonville before he ever made his bid,” Morsani says. “I know Wayne pretty well. People say well, he had this thing with Barger already done. I don’t know whether he did or not unless he is an awful good con artist. We were on the Florida Council of 100 together and we had a meeting in Jacksonville. He and I spent a couple of hours together talking about it. He said, ‘You deserve baseball. For all you have done … but I have to put in a bid. I am not going to go to anything elaborate. I am not even going to do anything, just tell them we are here.’ That’s exactly what the man told me. I was concerned but I didn’t think we could lose.”

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
Order ‘Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball’ by Bob Andelman, now available in an expanded, updated and illustrated 456-page special edition, available from by clicking on the book cover above!

Once he jumped in and formed South Florida Big League Baseball Inc., Huizenga entertained second and third thoughts about the cost. Every time another superstar ballplayer signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal, Huizenga winced. For a man who ran his company by the bottom line, baseball’s salary structure looked insane.

“We hired [the accounting firm of] Arthur Andersen & Co., which had experience doing auditing for several different teams,” he says. “We ran the numbers and ran the budget. We looked at that and came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be interested in baseball in any city but South Florida.”

Owning a sports franchise was not always a goal of Huizenga’s. A native of Evergreen Park, Illinois, and a one-time Cubs fans, he no longer followed the game. “I lived on the South Side and the Cubs were the North Side team, but I was a Cubs fan,” he says. “The only reason I really wanted to go after it was to be sure that we got it. There were two other groups looking for a team; I wasn’t sure they could get the job done.”

* * *

The expansion committee liked Huizenga instantly. They wondered aloud, did he plan to take on partners?

“My answer was that I preferred to do it alone,” Huizenga says. “If they wanted me to take in a partner, one from Dade County, one from Palm Beach, I would have considered that. Their response was, ‘No, we like the fact you’re going alone.’ That made me feel good.”

Weather wasn’t as easily dismissed. Huizenga acknowledged rain as a potential problem, but told the committee the harsh South Florida rains usually came in the afternoon, ending by 7 p.m. “There will be those times it doesn’t,” he told the committee. “We will have rain-outs, no question about it. We’ll just have to figure out how to make those up on days off.”

* * *

Huizenga’s attitude toward the expansion process foresaw a win-win-win situation for himself and Joe Robbie Stadium:

1) He might be selected to purchase an expansion franchise that would play 81 games at JRS.

2) Someone else from South Florida could be chosen and be convinced to play at least their first few seasons at JRS.

“On the one hand, we had a facility, such as it was,” Huizenga says. “But remember, it was a multipurpose facility. Baseball said, ‘We would prefer to have baseball-only, open-air, grass.’ The mayor of Miami said, ‘We’ll build that facility, well build it right down here on the bay.’ We thought the other guys may have had the inside track.

“[The Schmidt/Horrow group] said, ‘We’ll decide where to put the team after we get it.’ They figured they’d sign a lease with us once they got a team. And then maybe they’d build [their own stadium] five years later. You see, the other two groups knew we were spending the money to remodel our facility to get it ready for baseball. So if we didn’t get baseball, it would only make sense for us to lease them the stadium for a couple years, even if they were going to build their own facility. And we could recover some of our investment.”

3) Tampa Bay would host the only team in Florida, but in doing so would make South Florida number one in line for relocation of an existing team.

“That was our game plan from day one,” Huizenga says. “We assessed what would happen from reading the newspaper reports and listening to all the people that had been in this thing a long time. St. Petersburg had been in this a long time, Buffalo had been in this a long time. Denver — it seemed obvious that somebody felt obligated to put one out in the western part of the country rather than two more in the eastern part. There happened to be this time zone without a baseball team and whether that meant anything or not I didn’t know but everybody was making a big deal out of it. I felt that politically, Denver was going to get a team.

“I figured St. Petersburg would get a team,” he says. “And with the economics of baseball, some of the small market [teams] had to be sold. Carl and I had a conversation about small markets in big trouble and that people didn’t really realize the trouble they were in. Some teams make money, but a lot of teams don’t make money. It’s pretty bad for that guy at the bottom of the barrel. The bottom is in deep trouble.”

* * *

Once Huizenga made the National League owners’ short list in December 1990 to represent South Florida against Tampa Bay, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Buffalo and Denver in the battle for an expansion franchise, he became the pack’s front-runner, surprising even himself.

Tampa Bay, which had pursued a team for 14 years, found itself in the unaccustomed position of playing second fiddle to South Florida and Huizenga. Although the Tampa Bay area — and its two daily newspapers — didn’t take Orlando, Buffalo or Washington, D.C., very seriously, South Florida was a different threat entirely. It was a genuine metropolis, urbane, sophisticated and international; everything Tampa Bay dreamed of being.

H. Wayne Huizenga
H. Wayne Huizenga

Tampa Bay baseball fans, already thrown a curve when baseball picked Stephen Porter’s group to represent the region over hometown favorite Frank Morsani, shook their heads in dismay when “Captain Video,” Huizenga, paid Morsani $10,000 for the rights to use the name “Florida Panthers” if he were selected by the National League.

Unlike the battle of wits engaged between the Miami Herald ‘s Dave Barry and the Orlando Magic’s Pat Williams in 1989, the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune each went for H. Wayne Huizenga’s jugular. The slightest bit of controversy or bad news about Huizenga or Blockbuster Video — the Carl Barger connection, Blockbuster’s business dealings with Phoenix Communications and Major League Baseball — took on great significance. No matter how insignificant.

Huizenga denied that Blockbuster Video’s five-year exclusive deal with Phoenix Communications to sell licensed Major League Baseball videos improved his chances with the owners. Blockbuster also became a sponsor of national baseball telecasts in 1990.

And Huizenga’s 20-year personal friendship with Pittsburgh Pirates president Barger rocked the boat, too.

“All the bad stuff came out of Tampa/St. Petersburg,” Huizenga says. “Those guys did not get all their facts. They wrote from their emotions rather than from the facts. Okay, fine, they can write what they want to write. But they had Carl Barger influencing Danforth. I mean, not in a million years could that happen. You gotta know Doug Danforth. He’s chairman and CEO of Westinghouse. He was used to getting pressure all his life from people — ‘I need this, I want that.’ Doug Danforth was one of the leading CEOs ever in this country. He was not going to let somebody else make up his mind. Plus, it is not only the expansion committee that makes the decision. The ownership has got to vote. To think that Carl Barger, one guy, who’s not even an owner, just a president, an employee — to think that one employee on one team could go around and influence 26 owners — there was no way that could happen. Baseball guys couldn’t care less what some general manager or president tells them. Plus, it worked just the opposite for us, because Danforth was reading these same newspaper stories and he ended up keeping this thing at arm’s length. The other guys [Fred Wilpon, Bill Giles and Bill White] were friendly. They talked to me, they talked to Denver, they talked to St. Petersburg. But because Doug was worried about the perception, he wouldn’t even return phone calls.”

Barger wasn’t Huizenga’s only friend in the National League. Tom O’Donnell, president and publisher of the Fort Lauderdale-based Sun-Sentinel newspaper, which is owned by The Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago Cubs, introduced the Blockbuster Video boss to Stan Cook, president of the Cubs.

Huizenga dealt with expansion by deliberately keeping a low profile. He avoided the media as much as possible, concentrating on Blockbuster and his other businesses. He also steered clear of most rallies and other baseball events.

“You could have the whole community 100 percent behind you but the community doesn’t vote. Only the owners vote,” he says. “What’s the point of spending all your time and effort preaching to the choir?”

* * *

There remains considerable speculation that Huizenga was told early on he would receive one of the two franchises and that’s why he confidently invested $10-million out-of-pocket to convert JRS from football-only into a baseball stadium.

“The conjecture fits with what most people thought to be the economic decision analysis,” Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez says. “Anybody spending $10-million, plus a $100,000 application fee, probably had to expect the outcome. He had a very good idea that he fit the parameters of what they were looking for. But I lost my bet. I thought he’d begin work and not follow through. I didn’t see a lot of back-up use for all that [construction] without a baseball team.”

When Joe Robbie gave Huizenga his pitch about baseball in JRS, he showed the video magnate a model of the stadium in which the left field seats were removable for baseball. Unfortunately, Robbie had built left field with permanent seats, not knowing when or if baseball would ever come. Huizenga, once he owned a 50 percent interest in the stadium, decided JRS would be a whole lot more convincing as a baseball venue if the movable seats were in place.

“It’s difficult to take someone to the stadium and you look out there and you see the goal posts and say, ‘Just picture those left field seats coming out.’ Well,” he recalls, “somewhere along the way, we decided — ‘Why don’t we just spend the money and do it.’ “

Huizenga calls it “a roll of the dice,” but Ric Green, the Broward EDC’s sports director, says Huizenga would not spend $10-million on chance.

“Wayne Huizenga is a very smart businessman,” Green says. “He didn’t get where he is by not doing everything possible. He prepares 120 percent. I don’t want to claim the fix was in and I don’t want to cast any aspersions on Carl Barger. Everything that Wayne Huizenga could legitimately do I will guarantee you he attempted to do. His people over-prepare him for everything. I would imagine it would be foolish to not say he went to his good friend Carl Barger and said, ‘Who could I talk to?’ “

“I thought the team was going to St. Petersburg,” Huizenga says. “I thought that [converting JRS for baseball] was a long-term decision. Sooner or later we would get a team. Let’s say disaster happens somewhere, there was a fire in a stadium, an earthquake, and all of a sudden someone has to move. They’re going to have to have a place to go. The stadium in St. Petersburg is booked, because I figured St. Petersburg was going to get the team. So where else are you going to play? We’d be ready. Or if you wanted to buy a team and you could get permission to move it, okay, fine, you better do it quick. You wouldn’t want to buy a team and play in a town for two years saying, ‘We’re going to move two years from now.’ That wouldn’t work.”

As usual, Huizenga’s roll of the dice turned up lucky. Two hastily arranged exhibition games in late spring brought out 125,013 fans to JRS, a show of community support that backed up Huizenga’s open wallet. The numbers spoke for themselves.

Huizenga says the exhibition games let South Florida fans sent a message to Major League Baseball. And baseball heard them, loud and clear.

The spring games came after a bilingual, multicountry campaign to drum up support, including petition drives from Panama to Brazil, Key West to the Dominican Republic.

Volunteers inundated local sports agencies, offering to do anything they could do to help. A group called Baseball Maniacs formed in Fort Lauderdale. Pep rallies were held at the Bayside marketplace in downtown Miami. Sports bars across South Florida participated. So did the Cuban and Latin communities.

Suarez did everything he could — both as mayor and baseball fan. “One time I was watching ‘This Week in Baseball,’ “ he recalls. “They had a segment on broadcasting baseball games in Latin America. I sent copies of that segment to the expansion committee. I tried to convey that this would be very important for Major League Baseball. Forget Miami — this would be a stage to the world, I told them.”

Through the first few months of 1991, Huizenga says he understood South Florida to be running second to Tampa Bay in the minds of the expansion committee. “Everybody knew the Kohls had lots of money,” he says. “And everybody told me [Roy] Disney was in that deal. I don’t know if he was or not. But I kept seeing the propaganda out of Tampa, that their group’s net worth was a billion-five or something. And the guy in Orlando [Richard DeVos], he was a heavy hitter, worth a billion or so. So we weren’t the heavy guy in the pot, that’s for sure. I figured, we’ve got to keep plugging away and do our thing, see what happens.”

In late May, something happened to Huizenga, something painful. Despite explosive store growth and impressive earnings, Blockbuster’s stock tanked, dropping from $14.50 to $8.87 a share in nine weeks. Huizenga personally lost $115-million on paper, about the cost of a National League expansion franchise — not including players.

The Tampa Bay and Orlando media purred as it lapped up the bad news, making a final attempt to pump up local efforts for one last push. But Huizenga addressed investor concerns about his company’s future, convincing Wall Street it had panicked. Slowly, the price edged back up and Huizenga earned back $40-million of his loss.

Maybe Wall Street lost faith temporarily in the video star — but baseball didn’t. Rumors flew that Huizenga was in.

“I started getting phone calls saying, ‘Hey, I hear you guys are looking good,’ “ Huizenga recalls. “It might be an acquaintance. Or I might go to Wall Street on Blockbuster business and I’d bump into some guy and he’d say, ‘I was with somebody the other day who works over at the Mets or the Yankees and the word around there is you guys are looking good.’ Well, you don’t put much credit to something like that. When you stop and think that that’s some third-level person in the Yankees organization — they don’t know anything. But then a couple days would go by and I’d hear the same rumor two or three times and I’d say, ‘Whew, there’s too many rumors.’ “

* * *

Guys like Ric Green, the Broward EDC’s sports director, and his counterpart, Bill Perry III, executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, were easier to reach than Huizenga and his lieutenants. So they heard all the latest rumors.

Outrageous rumors had it that Huizenga made a deal with (University of Miami baseball coach) Ron Fraser to be his general manager, Green recalls. “They said he offered Blockbuster Video franchises to Bill White. Friends and reporters called me with this stuff. He was going to build a brand new stadium. He offered to put a dome on the stadium. Not one person was reliable. There was an article in [the failed sports daily] The National. They interviewed Mike Veeck — Bill Veeck’s son — who has a Florida State League franchise [The Miracle]. Mike was closely tied into this whole process because he owned the team that had the local baseball rights. Mike talked about how baseball will love South Florida. I told [Huizenga assistant] Don Smiley, ‘This is a great article, wouldn’t you say?’ and he said, ‘No, I hate it because baseball owners hate Bill Veeck.’ Oh, shit. Here you think you got some good publicity and … Oh boy.”

* * *

Anyone living in or visiting South Florida in May 1991 that didn’t know the region had a chance to get a baseball team must have had his head in the sand. The anticipation was palpable.

Instead of wondering where the two expansion teams would be placed, the question became who would be number two to South Florida. Would baseball place two new teams in Florida — with Tampa Bay second — or would it go with geographic diversity and make its second pitch to Denver?

“By the end of the whole process, everybody was saying South Florida didn’t have any weaknesses,” Mayor Suarez says. “I spoke to Doug Danforth and he said South Florida sounded good to him.”

* * *

All of the national baseball columnists weighed in with opinions on who would receive the two National League expansion franchises, all based on inside sources and educated guesses.

• Sports Illustrated announced Miami and Tampa Bay were a 1-2 punch for expansion.

• USA Today conducted two polls, one of a six-member professional panel, the other a survey of readers. Denver topped both polls as the No. 1 pick. The panel picked Miami as No. 2; readers chose Washington, D.C. One of the national newspaper’s panel members, baseball consultant Peter Bavasi, picked Tampa Bay and Miami.

• USA Today baseball writer Hal Bodley went with Denver and Miami.

• The Sporting News did a three-part study of the potential expansion cities. “If The Sporting News were picking the two expansion teams,” Paul Attner wrote, “they’d go to Miami and St. Petersburg. But if baseball decides to put only one club in Florida, Washington should get the second. What will baseball do? Pick St. Petersburg and Denver. And they better pray Denver can survive.”

• ESPN’s Peter Gammons first guessed St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C., then switched to Miami and St. Petersburg.

• Las Vegas oddsmakers listed St. Petersburg as a 1-5 favorite, Miami at 2-1, Denver at 4-1, Orlando and Washington, D.C. at 8-1 and Buffalo at 20-1.

• Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colorado, chairman of the U.S. Senate task force on baseball expansion, said he received information indicating teams would be awarded to St. Petersburg and Denver.

• New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden wrote that Miami would beat out Tampa Bay due to a larger TV market and a single local owner. He foresaw the second team going to Denver.

• The Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post separately polled active ballplayers to learn which cities they preferred to see receive teams. Tampa Bay came out on top, followed by Denver, in both polls. Miami finished third in the polls.

• Baseball America columnist Tracy Ringolsby wrote, “Miami has made the strongest push at the finish to land a team, but St. Petersburg is the emotional favorite. The folks there put their money where their mouth is, building the stadium to prove a commitment. . . . Each time, the Florida folks accepted their role as patsy without causing legal headaches for Major League Baseball. Loyalty says it’s time to repay the kindness and give the folks the baseball team they have wanted for so long.”

* * *

“It’s a big mistake, I think, for baseball to expand. What they should do is let some of the weaker teams move to bigger cities. That’s not what the fans want to hear, but the economics of baseball have gotten so cattywonkus that the small towns can’t make it. Those teams are going to have to do something. That’s why I think St. Petersburg will get a team pretty soon.”

— H. Wayne Huizenga, Chairman of the Board, Blockbuster Video, Florida Marlins

The Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies were born on June 10, 1991 — two days earlier than anticipated — dashing Tampa Bay’s hopes once again.

H. Wayne Huizenga — who paid Tampa’s Frank Morsani $10,000 for the rights to the name “Florida Panthers” but didn’t use it — told reporters he chose the statewide name “Florida Marlins” to take advantage of being the first baseball team in Florida.

His first major hiring decision as a team owner didn’t please or surprise Tampa Bay fans who felt the “fix” was in from the start: Carl Barger, Blockbuster Entertainment board member and president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, agreed to move south and take the helm of the Marlins.

“That didn’t seem to pass the smell test,” Porter group investor Mark Bostick says.

South Florida — which couldn’t care less what Bostick thought — fell at Huizenga the Conqueror’s feet.

“The baseball owners are very much like a club,” Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez says. “Huizenga was ideal for them. He was a very likable guy, low-key and soft-spoken. He was the kind of guy who would not come blustering into meetings, would not be too aggressive. And he put his money where his mouth was.”

* * *

(Missing out on expansion, St. Petersburg still refused to give up. The city began courting the financially troubled Seattle Mariners, a team frustrated by low attendance and miniscule media revenues.)

* * *

At the 1991 baseball winter meetings in Miami Beach, St. Petersburg assistant city manager Rick Dodge learned that winning an expansion team did not make a good sport out of Florida Marlins chairman H. Wayne Huizenga when it came to the neverending talk of a team relocating to St. Petersburg.

Not over my dead video rewinder, Huizenga told fellow team owners in a private meeting.

Huizenga figured he beat St. Petersburg fair and square. (Never mind that he hired his pal, Pittsburgh Pirates president Carl Barger within days of being awarded the Marlins.) If he was going to plunk down a $95-million fee just to get into the National League and invest another $30-million to get an undoubtedly lousy team up and running, he wanted some guarantee of at least temporary exclusivity in Florida. It wasn’t going to be easy or cheap to build fan support those first few years; an established team that might relocate and start play in St. Petersburg in 1992 would steal the Marlins’ bait.

In December and January, the video king threatened to renege on his deal or sue baseball unless a team moving to St. Petersburg paid a compensatory territorial fee to him estimated at $15-million.

Didn’t take long for that declaration to leak to the press. Huizenga and Marlins president Carl Barger denied they made such demands but too many baseball insiders confirmed the story for it not to be close to the truth.

“We heard that he went to the commissioner and was very direct about it: ‘If you allow Seattle to come here, I am going to withdraw my deposit or sue baseball,’ “ Dodge says. “I heard this from a couple of different people. People who have been friendly to us in the NL, we saw them shifting to protect Huizenga’s supposed interest. We knew it was a serious issue.”

Barger was quoted as saying with regard to a possible Mariners relocation to St. Petersburg, “We’re not going to take this sitting down.”

He wasn’t the only one, either. Steve Ehrhart, president and chief operating officer of the Colorado Rockies, was equally pissed off. “There’s going to be hell to pay on this,” he told the Tampa Tribune’s Joe Henderson. “Jeff thinks he can just come in there in a great market and line his pockets . . . while the rest of us are struggling. Well, he can’t have his cake and eat it too . . . We were prohibited from dealing with Seattle before we got this team, and we did inquire. We could have bought the Mariners for a lot less than we paid for this.”

Huizenga had every right to protect his interests. And baseball owners greedily clung to their individual shares of the video king’s expected cash contribution, afraid to contradict this powerful rookie member of the club. But Tampa Bay civic, political and sports leaders kicked up a fury. Screw you, H. Wayne, and the remote control you rode in on. Campaigns to boycott the Tampa Bay area Blockbuster Video stores were plotted. The Hillsborough and Pinellas county legislative delegations looked at ways of punishing Huizenga and Joe Robbie Stadium through legislation. And the bad publicity caromed across the country.

Although it’s doubtful they truly had a change of heart, Huizenga and Barger held a press conference at the Florida Suncoast Dome February 7 and bought newspaper ads in the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune to clarify their position.

“We spoke that day independent of the press conference,” Jack Critchfield recalls, “a personal, man-to-man reiteration of what they were saying publicly. They understood that Tampa Bay was not part of their market, that there would be no reason for them to oppose a team here and, in fact, they hoped that Florida had at least one, if not two more. Mr. Huizenga had a genuine concern that he paid too much for the franchise. He is a good man, and his record in business had been one of integrity. What they did was in their best interest. I think they would never have opposed a franchise here had they known it would be public knowledge. The fact that it became public put them in an untenable position and they had to go out and mend fences. They were silent on the issue from that point forward.”

Dodge was less enamored of Huizenga than was Critchfield. He heard the video king’s words, he just didn’t believe him.

“Very impressive guy,” Dodge recalls. “He said that he wouldn’t object and wouldn’t stand in the way and that there may have been some misunderstandings, but it wouldn’t be that way in the future. We all kind of looked at each other. Right. Sure. You wanted to believe him but he raised the issue of Seattle in the commissioner’s eyes. [Before coming to St. Petersburg,] Barger or somebody claimed that Smulyan had met with us. That got Smulyan in trouble with the commissioner; In fact he got fined. Heavily. When he met with us we assumed Jeff had [the commissioner’s] permission. But he didn’t inform the American League or the commissioner. The commissioner fined him $100,000.”

Smulyan would neither confirm or deny the fine. But Barger was right: Smulyan had finally met face-to-face with representatives of the City of St. Petersburg.

* * *

( The Seattle Mariners were eventually sold to Nintendo of America, the Japanese video game manufacturer, and the team remained in the Pacific Northwest. Not long after the sale was approved, a press conference was held at the Florida Suncoast Dome to announced that a local group led by businessman Vincent Naimoli had an agreement in principle to purchase the San Francisco Giants and relocate the team to St. Petersburg.)

* * *

When it came right down to brass balls, only two factors decided the future of the San Francisco Giants: television revenues and H. Wayne Huizenga. In that order.

In 1992, baseball was not the hot broadcast property it was four years earlier, when the game’s owners signed a $1.06-billion, four-year deal with CBS-TV and a $250-million deal with ESPN. Ratings were down. The game moved too slowly and dragged on too long for an audience choosing between baseball, American Gladiators, Geraldo Rivera and The Simpsons. ESPN notified Major League Baseball late in the ‘92 season that it would not renew its option for 1994 and ‘95, buying out the contract for $13-million instead. And CBS — which tried to renegotiate its deal in 1992 — made it quite clear that while it might renegotiate a new broadcast contract for the ‘94 season, the price would be at least 25 percent less than the original deal.

The idea that baseball might allow a franchise to leave the No. 5 television market in the country, San Francisco, for the No. 13 market, Tampa Bay, was pure idiocy to CBS. The introduction of CBS executive (and San Francisco native) Larry Baer to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the San Francisco bid left no doubt from where the real power and influence of this deal came. It wasn’t Bob Lurie, Vince Naimoli, Mayor Frank Jordan, Walter Shorenstein or Bill White. Baseball was warned that a bonehead move of the Giants out of San Francisco could cause the ‘94 broadcast offer to be in the neighborhood of $500-million, or 50 percent less than the old deal. That’s power.

To a team, this could mean a per team, annual drop in national broadcast revenues from $5- to $10-million. Television was the financial villain in all of this. Not the baloney about baseball’s traditions and resistance to team relocation.

Further stirring the money pit was Captain Video.

In the final stages of the 1991 expansion derby, Huizenga was assured that if he paid out the $95-million franchise fee demanded by the National League, he would be guaranteed at least one year of exclusivity — no competition from another team in Florida. It was an important part of the deal for Huizenga, who understood the desperate need of an expansion franchise to be loved and cherished by as many people as possible in its first undistinguished seasons.

The first time Huizenga felt this promise might be broken, during the 1991 winter meetings, he told fellow baseball owners that if they moved the Seattle Mariners to Tampa Bay, they could kiss his $95-million goodbye. They caved in and bent over backward to structure the Nintendo of America bid that wrestled the Mariners away from a frustrated Jeff Smulyan.

When the Giants issue arose just weeks after the Mariners transfer was done, Huizenga’s political situation was more delicate than ever at home. A hero to South Florida, he was ill-considered in the central and northern reaches of the Sunshine State for his success in winning an expansion franchise at Tampa Bay’s expense, for the perception that he derailed the Mariners from the Florida Suncoast Dome, and for his two-headed handling of the Giants opportunity.

Publicly, Huizenga encouraged Bob Lurie to come to Florida even before Vince Naimoli made his first offer for the Giants. (“Not only would we not stand in the way, we sought him {Lurie} out and encouraged him to come,” Huizenga said.) Publicly, Huizenga talked about the dollars-and-cents value of an in-state rivalry. (“We are pleased for the fans in the Tampa Bay area and pleased that the team is in the National League. This will help in building a friendly cross-state rivalry.”) Publicly, Huizenga said all the right things.

Privately, Huizenga and Marlins President Carl Barger reportedly turned every screw they could think of to keep the fourth most populous state in the country to themselves. And every time they howled with indignation at the charge of backstabbing, an owner called Rick Dodge, Jack Critchfield or Vince Naimoli to reconfirm that the Marlins were indeed lobbying opposition to the Giants deal.

“I had a lot of theories,” Dodge says, “but I heard often enough that Wayne Huizenga said he was promised an ‘exclusive’ to Florida for a number of years. He is not going to say that and baseball is not going to say that because that is collusion. I think there was a promise made. I’ve heard it from enough people in baseball to believe it. If that’s true, that is a whole other issue. What we found inconsistent were things like Carl Barger saying he was surprised that Bob Lurie moved quickly on this deal without getting approval. Huizenga said, in advance of us going to San Francisco, that he had called Bob Lurie and invited him to move the franchise. It was real simple. They wanted to protect their exclusivity as long as they could and they didn’t want to have an experienced, powerful club in the same state to compete against. They also wanted to see this market eventually have to pay an expansion fee that the Marlins could share.”

Critchfield wanted to believe Huizenga. He had met the man, discussed matters with him face to face and he truly hoped Huizenga was being straight with him. Wouldn’t an in-state rivalry help the Marlins? Wouldn’t Huizenga save on travel expenses by a relocation of the Giants to the Tampa Bay area?

“He stated clearly that if a vote came they would vote for it,” Critchfield says. “What he left unsaid was that they certainly would have liked to see that there was never a vote. They wanted at least one year before they had any competition in Florida. I couldn’t get inside Mr Huizenga’s mind. It was unfortunate that he gave the impression publicly and to me that they’d do nothing to resist relocation; in fact, there appeared to be evidence that they did. I tried to understand why. While I disagreed with the way he handled it, I suspect that if I were a new owner and if I realized that I paid far too much for a new franchise in a community that may or may not support it, with a stadium that probably needs a roof on it, and I lost even a million dollars of projected revenue, then I couldn’t be very happy about it. Especially if someone in baseball legally or illegally gave me reason to think that they would see to it that I had no competition. I was unhappy and I was disappointed it wasn’t handled better by the Marlins in general and that obviously is Mr. Huizenga.”

Huizenga made it no secret that he overpaid for the Marlins. And he resented anyone who might reduce his income by siphoning off media or other revenues, which was exactly what he feared a Tampa Bay franchise might do. But it was exactly that attitude that disquieted Tampa Bay partisans. Making matters tougher for Huizenga, he was unable to take that position public because much of the state of Florida — from the governor on down — didn’t believe that stonewalling a major economic opportunity for Tampa Bay meant operating in the best interest of the state.

Hard evidence of Huizenga’s alleged complicity was hard to come by, but rumor and innuendo were thick. St. Petersburg Times sportswriter Marc Topkin called it “the Energizer Bunny of rumors, because it keeps going and going and going.”

• “We didn’t get into this thing anticipating that we were going to have competition 250 miles away before we even threw out our first pitch,” Marlins President Carl Barger told Topkin.

• New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden reported that Huizenga “defected from the growing group of owners seeking to oust Fay Vincent after the commissioner promised he would use his ‘best-interests-of-baseball’ powers to block the move of the Giants to Tampa-St. Pete if the owners approved it.”

• The Miami Herald — another Huizenga-friendly daily — reported that the Marlins owner wanted to place his Triple A farm team in Charlotte, North Carolina. To do that, Huizenga flew to Charlotte in September and reached an agreement in principle with the man who owned the Class A Charlotte Knights and territorial rights — George Shinn. The deal would have put at least $1-million in Shinn’s wallet and an NL owner in his pocket at a time when he was negotiating to buy the Giants and keep them in San Francisco. But the baseball commissioner’s office nixed the deal, awarding the Triple A rights in Charlotte to the Cleveland Indians and banishing the Marlins’ top farm team to Edmonton, in western Canada.

• And in a curious move, Blockbuster Entertainment purchased 236 stores in the Sound Warehouse and Music Plus chains for $185-million. The seller? Shamrock Holdings, a firm controlled by Roy Disney, late of the unsuccessful Tampa Bay expansion group. To the business world, the transaction meant Blockbuster was simply diversifying. To Tampa Bay baseball fans, it portended something more sinister, such as a payoff for the apparent pullout of Disney’s cash from Steve Porter’s group in 1991.

Tampa Bay’s baseball fans reached the breaking point with Huizenga on October 22, 1992. Spurred on by WFLA radio talk show host Jay Marvin and organized by local resident Jim Cohen, 75 people protested Huizenga’s meddling by creating a scene in front of a Blockbuster Video store in St. Petersburg. They lined the sidewalk on Fourth Street N, waving an array of signs aimed at Huizenga: “This Ain’t Your World, Wayne!” “Just Say Yes, Wayne.” “No Support, No State $.” “Wayne is Being a Pain!” “Blockbuster Chairman is Against TB Giants.” “Hey, Wayne: Vote Yes on Tampa Bay Giants or No Videos!” “Shame On You Blockbuster!” And even one non-aligned sign: “Will Work for Season Tickets.”

Passing motorists honked their horns in support of the protesters, several of whom lined the store’s driveway entrance and pleaded with Blockbuster customers to turn in their rental cards. Many did.

Marlins President Carl Barger didn’t get the point.

“It’s getting a little old,” he told St. Petersburg Times reporter Tom Tobin. “Blockbuster is a publicly held company. Blockbuster has nothing to do with the Marlins just because Wayne Huizenga has an involvement. No one loves baseball more than I do {but} I think to take baseball to those extremes is kind of sad.”

A competitor of Blockbuster in St. Petersburg, Network Video, printed T-shirts to establish a distinction between the two companies: “Network Video supports baseball for Tampa Bay. The OTHER video store doesn’t!”

“If what we heard about Mr. Huizenga was untrue,” Dodge says, “he was the most maligned person inside baseball.”

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Andrew Young Shocks Tampa Bay! MADDUX REPORT

Andrew Young and the Making of Modern Atlanta by Andrew Young, Harvey Newman and Andrea Young
Andrew Young and the Making of Modern Atlanta by Andrew Young, Harvey Newman and Andrea Young. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!

By Bob Andelman

(NOTE: This story, written in May, 1990 for the Maddux Report, was the first of three times–so far–that I have had the pleasure to work with legendary civil rights leader Andrew Young. More recently, I have worked with him in writing introductions to books by two of his close friends, Herman J. Russell and Felker Ward, Jr.–Bob Andelman)

Andrew Young hasn’t been to Tampa Bay very often. Probably wouldn’t know Ybor City from Kenneth City. But the former mayor of Atlanta knows the lure of the metropolitan area well enough to take it very, very seriously.

“Put it this way,” he says “We’re very sensitive to competition in Atlanta. We like to meet and beat the competition. Look around. We don’t see Jacksonville, Charlotte or New Orleans. The only place that is competitive is Tampa Bay.”

Say what?

“We envy the seashore,” he says. “We think we have a very good climate. But we don’t question that maybe yours is a little better.

“The reason people there are surprised by what I said is they see Tampa and St. Petersburg as separate entities,” says Young in a telephone interview. “From the outside, we see it as one tremendous area that if it ever starts working together, could be competition for any place in the United States.”

The former mayor of Atlanta, expanding upon his comments to National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP) members in February, says he knows a thing or two about building bridges and replacing political barricades with economic development, two of the hottest topics in Tampa Bay business circles.

And he says the biggest single business challenge to Atlanta is the single market sell of Tampa Bay, Inc.

Long before the Bay area was reaching from Hillsborough to Pinellas counties through the Tampa Bay Partnership, Tampa Bay International Trade Council, Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce, Tampa Bay Advertising Federation, Tampa Bay Interconnect, and a variety of super task forces, Andy Young’s Atlanta was bringing as many as 12 diverse counties into its economic web.

What brought them together?

“I think it took a decision on the part of business to think of the economy united instead of as separate political units. The five different banks don’t think of counties. They think of Atlanta,” he says. “Our airport, our mass transit, our highways help. They all tie together, they bring you through downtown Atlanta. We tied mass transit from the airport to downtown to the northern suburbs. And businesses started locating along (the same) highways.”

Can Tampa Bay use Atlanta as a blueprint for more homogenous metro growth?


Here’s a few examples of Atlanta’s accomplishments in the ’80s under Young’s leadership:

* Redevelopment of Underground Atlanta, a 220,000 square foot, downtown specialty entertainment marketplace. It was financed through a partnership of $37-million in public funds, $19-million in private equity, and $85-million in industrial revenue bonds. The project employs 3,200 people and generates $5-million annually in tax revenues.

* The Downtown Development Authority assisted the city in issuing more than $148-million in industrial revenue bonds used to develop 20 private sector projects with a construction value of $224-million.

Building Atlanta by Herman J. Russell with Bob Andelman; Introduction by Andrew Young
Building Atlanta by Herman J. Russell with Bob Andelman; Introduction by Andrew Young. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!

* Central Area Study II brought together business, civic and government officials together to form a consensus for downtown Atlanta’s future development.

* Atlanta invested $6.3-million in the development of the 330-acre Atlanta Industrial Park, which has generated $75-million in private investment. A$2.2-million city investment in Southside Industrial Park returned $16-million from the private sector. The two parks have created or retained 1,500 jobs.

* More than $4-billion worth of new construction has taken place in Atlanta since 1982.

* More than 4,200 new businesses have been licensed in the city, creating 50,000 new jobs.

* According to the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, 2,775 new projects have begun in metro Atlanta since 1983 with a total value of $67-billion.

* Taking advantage of Young’s years and contacts as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Atlanta has rapidly expanded its international exposure and opportunities. The city hosts 29 foreign banks, 36 consulates, 13 foreign chambers of commerce, and six tourism offices.

Two regional bodies drew the disparate counties together around Atlanta. Every community is represented on the Atlanta Regional Commission. And the Atlanta Action Forum balances 20 black and 20 white leaders from business, civil rights groups, banking, and higher education. They meet once a month, informally, with no minutes taken, no press allowed. “There’s no surrogates,” according to Young. “If a CEO is not present, nobody can represent him. It’s just a group of powerful people who get together informally to think and work for the good of the community.”

Young also credits an “aggressive” area chamber of commerce with building bridges between businesses.

“We made a killing on economic development,” says Young, chuckling. “We got new airlines, new construction – four 50-story buildings are under construction right now. One is a hotel; the other three (office buildings) are half-leased up before they’re complete. And I think we’re going to get the (1996 Summer) Olympics. That and the (1992) Democratic National Convention would just help us take off.”

Young left the mayor’s office to Maynard Jackson in January and is now the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia and a special consultant to Law Companies Group, Inc. But his pointed remarks regarding the highly charged, competitive air between Atlanta and Tampa Bay created a buzz that still resounds in Bay area business, political and community circles.

Bill Knight, president of NAIOP, wasn’t caught off-guard by Young’s comments. “Having been in the Tampa Bay area for only four years myself, that was a comparison that’s easy for an outsider to make,” he says. “They’re both the banking centers for their regions, the labor pool is comparable. I think Tampa Bay can compete favorably with Atlanta and I think Atlanta realizes that.”

Young, who says he tends to speak off the cuff, formed the tone and tenor of his remarks to NAIOP after meeting with local developers and privately with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. It was the first time the two prominent Democrats had ever met and both came away with positive impressions.

“He told me he couldn’t understand the attitude of some of the people he had spoken to here (who were) negative,” recalls Freedman. “He said he always thinks of Tampa Bay as a competitor. I wasn’t surprised; I think it’s something people here need to recognize. We talk to an awful lot of folks who are looking to relocate their headquarters. And frequently, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and one or two other places top their list.

“I think there’s a lot of comparisons to be made,” continues the mayor of Tampa. “I see a lot of similarities between Atlanta 20 years ago and Tampa today. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned, too.”

Ron Weaver, chairman of governmental affairs for NAIOP’s Tampa chapter, was responsible for recommending Young as featured speaker. “He was invited because of Atlanta’s success – Tampa views Atlanta as a strong competitor. We thought the other star in the southern domain should have a chance to speak. We got an idea when we invited him that he would tie us into a package with our sister city – Atlanta,” says Weaver.

The former mayor of Atlanta was surprised by the hubbub generated by his speech. “I wanted to be supportive of what (Freedman) was trying to do,” he says. “I thought she was on the right track and I was trying to be supportive of her agenda.”

Not everyone is ready to put faith in Tampa Bay/Atlanta comparisons.

“I think it’s a bit of a stretch from several standpoints,” says Bob Carr, managing partner of Carr-Rubin Associates in Clearwater. “Atlanta is a hub. We’re not. We’re the end of the line. You don’t have anywhere to go once you get to Florida. They have a heckuva population of businesses up there that we’re just beginning to be considered by. I disagree with the thought we’re competing with them. I would be real surprised if competition for a company came down to us and Atlanta. I could see us and other Florida locations, but I would find it a real stretch to say Atlanta and Tampa Bay.”

Atlanta is helped in its dominance of Florida by the lack of equally dominant cities anywhere else in the state of Georgia. Atlanta is also the state capital. Florida’s population and business is more spread out, with major regional centers in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville, and the state capital of Tallahassee.

Florida’s growth management act is another difference between the two states. Georgia has no comparable legislation and Young – who says Atlanta follows the intent of concurrency less the letter of the law – is not a proponent of copycat rules for his state.

“I think we’ve done it a little more flexibly. Instead of doing it by state law, we’ve done it by regional commission. Before we zone, we negotiate the environmental impact. Nothing is mandated. We try to work with the developers and investors, simply because a state-mandated law scares people away,” according to Young.

Young tells a story about a generous contribution his gubernatorial campaign received from a developer. Young’s administration had earlier denied the man a demolition permit. Instead of sending the man packing, however, the city came up with an alternative solution, swapping parcels of land to make his project work. “Because we had the local flexibility to deal with it,” says Young, “he got what he wanted and we got what we wanted.

” ‘course, I don’t mind you all scaring them off,” he adds, “because they come up here.”

In the case of the spurned-yet-satisfied developer, Young says the man stays in his corner because he knows he’s welcome there. “The main thing that investors want is access,” says Young. “I had to disagree with most of the people who contacted me on special problems. But they wanted their day in court. I tried to be available whether I could help or not.”

One of Atlanta’s strengths over Tampa Bay and other emerging metropolitan areas is the number of major international conglomerates that call Atlanta their corporate headquarters. The list is headed by Coca-Cola, BellSouth, Delta Airlines, Georgia-Pacific, Turner Broadcasting (CNN, Headline News, WTBS, TNT), and Scientific America. While Tampa Bay has a few corporate headquarters of note, it has gained more back-office operations and subsidiary action than headquarters relocation.

The difference is significant.

“These companies (in Atlanta) have more of a stake in the town. We have cultivated a sense of corporate responsibility,” according to Young. “I get a sense that Tampa is having a problem with that because Tampa is a branch office and good people are picked up and moved to the home office.”

Young is sympathetic to Tampa Bay’s dearth of corporate headquarters because Atlanta is itself home to branch offices of two of America’s largest multinationals, IBM and AT&T. IBM has 14,000 employees in the Atlanta area; AT&T has 12,000. “The community response from those two is noticeably different,” says Young. “They’re less involved, even though they’re among the largest companies and employers. In the pursuit of the Olympics, they’re involved, but it’s the home companies that put up the money.”

Good, lifetime corporate citizens are difficult to find and maintain in Tampa Bay, as Young indicates, because they tend to make a short-term mark locally then move on up their corporation’s ladder. No one would undermine even brief community works, but the effect of a locally-based corporation in terms of dollars, volunteerism and education is different than that of a branch office.

The effect of corporate headquarters is felt in many ways.

“Delta Airlines’ headquarters makes a big difference. (Atlanta is their) hub city and they have 30,000 employees here,” says Young. “With Delta, Coke, CNN, and Georgia-Pacific, we have a good, diverse base of industry.”

Atlanta has another major advantage over Tampa Bay and many other metro areas with 29 thriving colleges and universities serving up to 200,000 students. Many of the schools are spinning off actual business activity. They also offer diverse MBA and Ph.D evening courses, which Young credits with upgrading the region’s workforce.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Andrew Young’s economic success as mayor was the way he drew minorities into Atlanta’s growth and development. “Fair share” was a priority and hallmark of his administration – the one-time preacher was, after all, a chief aide to Dr. Martin Luther King during the ’60s. “I think one of the best things we’ve got going for us is affirmative action,” says Young. “In a lot of places, the minority community doesn’t feel a part of growth and development. They are a part of OUR growth.”

Minority participation held up airport expansion at one point because Young’s administration insisted on a minimum of 25 percent minority involvement. While that requirement was declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court, it made the mayor’s point of view quite clear to any affirmative action holdouts in Atlanta’s business community.

“They kinda understand it’s good business,” Young says with a laugh. “We have to close streets and do things to sewage (to accommodate construction). I really believe the national corporations understood what we were trying to do. It doesn’t cost you anything and it’s good business, too.”

In the case of a new city hall annex, construction was split between minority and majority contractors and 30 percent of the subs were minority owned and operated. The bid came in $4-million under budget and the job was finished before deadline.

Young claims Atlanta has 12,000 certified, minority-owned businesses that train blacks and others, “making assets of people who in other communities are liabilities through welfare or crime.”

Not that Young was able to solve Atlanta’s crime woes.

“I think the biggest problem we’ve not been able to solve is crime,” he admits. “You don’t ever solve crime. But one of the problems we have … I encouraged very aggressive police work, constant raiding of drug dens by the police. That runs your statistics up. In an attempt to make the city safe, we get a very high crime rate.”

That unique interpretation of Atlanta’s crime rate may not be one that is shared by others in the city.

Another area Young concedes he failed in is Atlanta’s high school dropout rate. While he says 69 percent of city graduates go on to college, a disgraceful 25 percent of all students dropout. Young hopes to prioritize on the problem should he be elected governor; he has at least one harsh idea for correcting the dropout rate.

“One of the things I want to do is recruit more male teachers, particularly from the ranks of the military, to get men with that kind of discipline in the school system,” he says. “You need male role models for the boys. I’d put them in the 6th through 12th grades.”

Young believes that Atlanta shares with Florida the growing homeless crisis. He says the time has come for federal responsibility.

“Our warm climates attract the homeless. We’re caring for them,” he says. “But I’m afraid the homeless are going to grow, the more you care for them. We’re building shelters, but we need to educate these people. We need the federal government’s help. The homeless are not being generated in Florida or Georgia – they’re coming from all over the country.”

One area that Young is credited with improving may not seem important on the face of it. But the transformation of Atlanta’s taxicab hacks into an elite crew of polite, informative, economic developers – “Atlanta Ambassadors” – may save countless business deals from leaving town on a daily basis.

Young devoted his attention to this minor detail of big city life when he heard about a $300-million real estate sale that fell apart. An out-of-town buyer left his hotel and hailed a cab for the two-block distance to the closing. The driver had been waiting in line watching minutes tick by, anxious for an airport fare. Instead he got a guy who wanted to go two blocks, which isn’t worth peanuts. The driver cussed at his stunned passenger – who decided this wasn’t a city in which he cared to do business with after all. So the fare said, you win. Take me to the airport. “He walked out on a $300-million deal,” recalls Young.

Recognizing a major public relations challenge – shades of Reaganism – Young was instrumental in pushing through new taxi ordinances. They required courtesy and crimewatch training for all drivers facing license renewal, new vehicle standards – specific colors, vintage and models – flat fees from the airport to downtown hotels, and a flat $3 fee for travel anywhere in a downtown zone. The city also bumped the overall rate structure upwards to make the changes more palatable to fleet owners and drivers.

“All we did was make them feel a part of the growth and development of the region and let them know we needed their help,” says Young.

The Wawa Way, CEO, Howard Stoeckel, author, Mr. Media Interviews
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Good as Gold: Tina Little’s luxury jewelry business is sparkling (Biz941)

By Bob Andelman

(Originally written in December 2007; the story is no longer on Biz941’s website archive so I am re-posting it here.)

Tina Taylor Little, owner, Queen's Wreath Jewels, Sarasota, Florida
Tina Taylor Little, owner, Queen’s Wreath Jewels, Sarasota, Florida

Gemologist Tina Taylor Little discovered up-and-coming jeweler Michael Beaudry at the 1996 New York Jewelry Show, and it changed her professional life. At the time, Little was the manager of the jewelry department at Sarasota’s Saks Fifth Avenue, but she sensed that Beaudry was a rising star, and her eye for spotting talent gave her the confidence to quit her job and open her own store. Within 30 days, she obtained financing from a private angel and welcomed her first customers to Queens’ Wreath Jewels.

That was in 1999. A year later, brandishing strong initial sales numbers, Little went back to Beaudry-who, at 41, is now one of the most respected jewelry designers in the luxury niche-and asked if he would do a trunk show for her in Sarasota.

He did; customer response was enthusiastic; and the two have been a powerhouse duo ever since. Little continues to show and sell Beaudry’s designs, along with a variety of other luxury jewelry.. Her store, now on St. Armands Circle, is one of the region’s most upscale jewelry businesses, with customers-many of them from Sarasota-who have the ability and desire to pay six figures for an heirloom-quality piece.

Being an upscale retail jeweler is not a bad position to be in these days, according to both Little and Lauren Thompson, public affairs coordinator for the New York-based industry trade association Jewelers of America.

“Retail jewelers are experiencing greater sales growth than other retailers,” Thompson says. “And mass-market retail won’t experience as much growth this year as a high-end retailer such as Tiffany. Consumers will pay more for quality. And high-end consumers are still shopping. Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute, predicted that the higher-end retail jewelers might see growth as high as eight to 12 percent. It’s very important to differentiate your business; it’s easier for an independent jeweler to do that versus a mid-range jeweler who is competing with a big-box retailer or jewelry chain.”

Little agrees.

“We tend to sell at the extremes,” she says. “We’re kind of living in a bubble here in Sarasota, as far as a luxury market goes.”

For the past five years, Little has organized and hosted a private, invitation-only dinner and jewelry event (our sister publication, Sarasota Magazine is a sponsor) for 75 called “Beaudry & Bentley.” For the past two years it has been held at the Crosley Estate.

“Tina plans this event a year in advance,” Beaudry says, “and always comes up with new ideas to make it a luxury experience. She sets the stage, and I show up with my dancing shoes. It has grown every year to be the must-attend event in Sarasota [raising $70,000 for All Children’s Hospital in Sarasota]. The idea of a ‘Best of Breed’ partnership for events and promoting had not really been done when Tina started this. We have shared this winning formula with our dealer network. You cannot pick up a magazine now without seeing co-branding advertisements featuring two separate companies in a complementary brand statement.”

This summer, Beaudry named Little as a consultant and ambassador for his jewelry line, sending his good friend and supporter to Dubai last December to represent his interests at an international jewelry show.

“Tina is one of the most successful brand ambassadors of Beaudry in the country,” the diamond designer says. “She has a wealth of experience in high-end retail jewelry sales, presentation, sales training and event planning, and is willing to share her knowledge with other Beaudry dealers to help enhance their business. This is a testament to Tina’s mindset and broad vision.”

Little was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her mother, Wilda Taylor, danced in films (Roustabout; Harem Scarem; Frankie and Johnny) and choreographed Elvis Presley movies in the 1960s. Taylor worked with everyone from Pearl Bailey and George Raft to Don Knotts and Andy Griffith (separately), eventually growing her influence from dance to design, placing her clothes with Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin at one point. More recently, Taylor-who has her own Web site ( )-appeared in small roles in Star Trek Enterprise and Six Feet Under. She also performs every Monday at The Comedy Store in L.A. “I was expected to take that road,” her daughter says, “but I had my own passion, which was jewelry.”

As for her father, producer Robert Fallon, Little thought he was dead until she was 15 and he came out of the Hollywood shadows after his wife, actress Marie Wilson, had died, prompting him to acknowledge Little-born out of wedlock-as his daughter.

“That’s the facts,” Little says. “I’m not protecting him; he’s dead. He was a guy’s guy who went hunting with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. He was one of those guys who hung out on motorcycles on Sunset Boulevard. It was not pretty in a lot of ways. He never helped my mother. She raised two kids all by herself. He liked looking at me because I looked like him.”

Little followed her heart to Nashville in 1984-her father’s famous last words to her were, “I can’t believe you’re leaving L.A.”-and became a graduate gemologist, learning the business from top to bottom. A vacation in Sarasota turned her on to the city a few years later and she relocated here, managing stores for jeweler McCarver & Moser, among others, and opening a jewelry department for Saks.

“Several of my clients have been putting together collections with me here in Sarasota for more than 20 years,” she says. “That’s my niche; helping people put together their heirloom collections. It is all about collecting. If a man says, ‘You already have three rings, why would you need another?’ the answer is, ‘She doesn’t need another ring, but it would enhance her collection.’ I deal in diamonds that are so rare that there might be only five or six available in their category in the world. When I handpick a diamond, I have had people hand-carry it from Europe to New York to Sarasota to delivery it to a client.”

Diamonds aren’t cheap, certainly not at Queens’ Wreath.

“At this store there really is not a limit to what we could handle,” says Little. “Several hundred thousand dollars is not unusual. That would not be our average sale; we fill the gamut from $500 to whatever the customer’s desires are. Whatever the price tag, we feel confident.”

Queens’ Wreath Jewels has one stockholder, a family that is a silent partner to Little’s success. She won’t reveal annual sales revenues, although it is tempting: “I don’t even tell the Jewelers Board of Trade, who would love to put me in their Red Book. It’s like a DMV for jewelry stores.”

For the same reason, Little declines to discuss how she finances her high-flying jewelry deals.

“Some of it is trade secret,” she says. “What I do is magic. At the end of the day it may be a three-carat fancy, intense pink diamond. If everyone knew how I acquired things, then what have I done spending my whole life separating myself from a crowd? This business is trust-oriented. Deals are made on handshakes that are irrevocable. This is probably the last business in the world where a handshake and a word are a commitment.”

Little is married to architect and interior designer Thorning Little in Sarasota. Thorning, who is known for his expertise in lavish Mediterranean-style architecture, has designed all three of his wife’s stores.

Little also has discovered and cultivated relationships with many fine jewelry designers, but there is no question it is her chemistry with Beaudry that has loomed large over the success of Queens’ Wreath Jewels. The store is now in its third location in eight years, each one progressively larger and in a more highly trafficked spot than the last. Employment hovers around 10 people.

“In every jewelry store I’ve managed in Sarasota, I personally captured a share of the market’s loyalty and trust. And they followed me,” Little says. “When I opened my own store, they supported me. I have acquired friendships and relationships through trustworthy transactions. I established a reputation and I work hard to maintain that.”

Queen’s Wreath Jewels Facebook • Yelp

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Rose Afriyie, mRelief

Knight News Challenge 10th Anniversary series: five stories

In November 2017, the Knight Foundation published a collection of 10 profiles of organizations that received Knight News Challenge grants from it over the past decade. I wrote five of these stories, which you can read at the Knight Foundation website by clicking the links below:


Shannon Dosemagen, Public Labs
Shannon Dosemagen, Public Labs


Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Center for Civic Media
Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Center for Civic Media


Nancy Lublin, Crisis Text Line
Nancy Lublin, Crisis Text Line


Rose Afriyie, mRelief
Rose Afriyie, mRelief


Aron Pilhofer, DocumentCloud
Aron Pilhofer, DocumentCloud

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Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right

Elizabeth Kovachevich The Judge is a Lady (Tampa Bay Life)

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1989)

Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right

By Bob Andelman

“If I had any respect left for Elizabeth Kovachevich, that disappeared when she locked me up. She had a good public image, but I discovered firsthand that she was willing and able to abuse her power … The hanging judge had a rope for every occasion.” — Denny McLain from his book, Strikeout

CLEARLY, Denny McLain thought the worst, wrote book while in jail, then got outy the last pitcher to win 31 games in major league baseball, was not a great fan of Elizabeth Kovachevich, a United States district court judge in Tampa. Few would be fond of the person who sentences them to 23 years in federal prison. McLain is more than a little direct in his criticism of Her Honor in his 1988 book, Strikeout. Remarking on her work in his trial on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and describe her drug dealing charges, McLain uses the following descriptions: “sham,” “botched,” “farce,” “she went nuts,” “ringmaster of the circus,” and “outrageous.”

That was before McLain decided to acknowledge he was guilty of racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It was written while McLain was serving 29 months behind bars, before the “hanging judge” commuted his sentence and put him on probation.

McLain has a new message, suggested to him by Judge Kovachevich: don’t believe everything you read in his book. He may have been hasty in his character attacks against Tampa’s most controversial jurist.

“I always had mixed emotions at what had gone on during the trial,” says the ex-Cy Young Award winner by telephone from Fort Wayne, Ind. “But she proved to me she had the ability to be fair. She showed us some insight that I didn’t know existed. She didn’t have any bitterness. She gave me back my life, my family. She turned out to be quite a lady. I can’t get over it.”


During 1988, the name Kovachevich was synonymous with controversy.

Besides the McLain case, the single, 52-year-old has been strongly identified with two landmark AIDS rulings. She was responsible for the settlement reached in the complaint of Arcadia’s Ray brothers — Ricky, Robert and Randy — who sued the DeSoto County School Board when they were refused admittance to public schools because they had contracted AIDS.

And arguments in the case of Eliana Martinez — a mentally handicapped 7-year-old girl who is in the advanced stages of the AIDS virus — may outlast the Tampa child whose mother has been fighting to find her a place in public school. Kovachevich caused a maelstrom when she ruled that Eliana could only attend school if she was kept in a glass isolation booth. The idea was inspired by a 1976 made-for-television movie starring John Travolta, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Neither the Hillsborough County School Board, Eliana’s mother, Rosa, nor a federal appeals court found the ruling acceptable.

Those were just the most recent cases that put Kovachevich’s name in the spotlight as prominently as the defendants’ before her. Here are a few others:

* In 1987, Kovachevich ruled that a menorah in front of Tampa’s City Hall — celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — violated constitutional safeguards separating church and state; for the city to light candles would suggest Tampa was endorsing one holiday over another. The ceremony was canceled over the protests of the Jewish community, which is awaiting a ruling from a higher court on the issue. (Kovachevich is a practicing Roman Catholic; Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lit the first candle in 1986, is Jewish.)

* As an adjunct to the McLain case, Kovachevich removed his attorney, Arnold D. Levine, for evidence tampering and initiated a formal rebuke of Levine by a three-member panel of federal judges.

* When Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, was fired for absenteeism due to alcoholism — which the federal government recognizes as a disease — Kovachevich set off a national dialogue with her ruling. She said that as a federal employee with a disease, Ferguson should be considered a handicapped worker and was protected from being fired without first being helped. She wrote that Ferguson’s supervisors had a responsibility to help him before they fired him.

* Arthur Jones, multimillionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment, sued ABC-TV’s news program 20/20 for $4 billion in 1988 for defamation of character, reportedly the largest libel suit ever brought against a news organization. Kovachevich ruled against Jones.


Elizabeth Kovachevich never dreamed of becoming a judge.

After a successful private law practice in St. Petersburg and a term with the Florida Board of Regents — during which she gained notoriety for calling coed dormitories “taxpayers’ whorehouses” — friends started whispering the words “Judge Kovachevich” in her ear.

“I thought, well, they feel I have something to offer,” she recalls. “I was the first woman who ran for circuit judge (in Pinellas County). It wasn’t until after I got into the position that I realized I was doing what I was meant to do.”

Her first campaign sought to get Kovachevich elected and teach the public how to pronounce her last name (Ko-VATCH-uh-vitch). Remembering the old Burma Shave signs that she once saw while driving across America on Highway 66, Kovachevich found the method worked for selling candidates as well as shave cream.

“We put a KO on one sign. Then 50 feet down the road we put the VACH, then the E and the last sign would be VICH. And then we would run another set of them. KO-VACH-E-VICH, KO-VACH-E-VICH. It was like a choo-choo train. All the way up Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), you could see the signs.”

Three Republican presidents have had a hand in guiding Kovachevich’s career. Richard Nixon appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1973. Gerald Ford first nominated her to be a U.S. District Judge in 1976, but it took until 1982 for Ronald Reagan — via former U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins’ recommendation — to finally appoint Kovachevich to a lifetime job wearing judicial robes in the Middle District of Florida. She spent two years in Orlando and then transferred to Tampa.

Republican Congressman Bill Young has been a fan of Kovachevich’s since she clerked for him back in 1960 when he was a state senator in 1960.

“She is very intense and determined to do what’s right,” according to Young. Kovachevich, he goes on, is “rather inflexible, but determined to do what in her heart she considers is the right thing.”

Bob Merkle, former U.S. attorney and Republican senatorial candidate, also comes across as being in Kovachevich’s corner. It was Merkle, incidentally, who brought the original charges against Denny McLain.

“She’s very bright, very personable,” he says. “While I haven’t agreed with everything she’s done, all in all I think she’s going to be a great judge. She’s everything you look for: she’s not distant or arrogant.”


Tampa still hasn’t made up its mind about the fast-talking, no-nonsense redhead who daily admonishes slow-moving, jive-talking lawyers to move it or lose it.

“In show business,” she says with a laugh, “they would say Tampa is a tough ticket.”

When the Hillsborough County Bar Association asked its members to rate local judges, Kovachevich received the most negative response of the city’s nine federal judges. Hillsborough’s 56 judges, her rating was fifth from the bottom.

Dallas Albritton, president of the Bar in 1987 when the results were released, cautions against interpreting the results as negative.

“Only a small portion of lawyers (500 out of a possible 2,000) chose to respond. I would hope they were not just lawyers with an axe to grind,” he says. From his own experience, Albritton adds, “I think she’s a crackerjack judge. She’s no-nonsense; she recognizes hot air when she hears it. I like to appear in her court. She’s a lively judge.”

Not everyone is taken with Kovachevich.

“I think she did a terrible job,” says a man who appeared before the judge and prefers to remain anonymous while his case is appealed to a higher court. “I was told by my lawyer that the last judge you want is her.”


Two AIDS cases presented before Kovachevich in 1988 drew nationwide attention to Courtroom E in downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse.

“She was faced with a potential media circus,” says Judy Kavanaugh, attorney for the Ray brothers. “Some judges are very sensitive to the press and very hostile. But she handles it real well. She really tried to be fair. I she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”


The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”


The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal offense has a right to his or her day in court within 70 days of arrest. That’s a tall order for a judiciary that is already overworked and underpaid. But in Judge Kovachevich’s court, if it’s fast justice you need, it’s fast justice you’ll get.

“All she cared about was her precious docket and how many hours we were behind schedule,” wrote Denny McLain in his book, wherein he describes how during his months-long trial, Kovachevich extended the court’s typical day from seven hours to 9-1/2 hours, exhausting all parties involved. “To hell with my rights … the woman was obsessed with the clock.”

“I’ve heard she really pushes cases along, and that antagonizes lawyers who drag their feet,” says Bruce Jacob, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law and a one-time fellow student of the judge’s. “I admire her for trying to move cases along.”

“In our case, she did that,” confirms attorney Judy Kavanaugh, noting that the Ray case was scheduled for February but the judge abruptly pushed it up to October. “At the time, it was painful. But in our case, it made us get our act together.”

“She manages her time well,” says St. Petersburg attorney Tony Battaglia. “Judges who are very conservative have a great concern about the docket because everyone has a right to their day in court.”

Kovachevich brags about her ability to do three things at once while sitting in judgment on the federal bench. While hearing testimony in January at the drug trafficking case of Pedro Gomez, she could be seen reading, writing and occasionally making conversation or exchanging notes with one of her court clerks. Remarkably, she never skipped a beat through a parade of witnesses, objections or even a tired looking jury.

“I’ve been criticized by some people that did not realize I am capable of reading and doing two and three things at once and paying full attention to each one of them,” she says. “When I’m up on the bench and in a long trial, there is no way that paperwork can get out of this office without having it funneled in and out (of the courtroom). … It’s very fatiguing to do this. I’m not going to tell you that coming home at the end of the day you are not tired. Mentally, you are whipped! But if I only did one thing at a time, the two other things wouldn’t get done. And you multiply that in trials.”

And heaven help the attorney who doesn’t wrap up a case at precisely 4 p.m. Along about 3:55 in the Gomez trial, Kovachevich began staring at the clock on the wall as the lawyers examined, cross-examined, redirected and re-redirected.

“Any re-redirect?” she asked the prosecution.

“Just one question, your honor.”

“I knew there would be.”

And moments later, to the defense: “Any re-recross?”

“Just a moment, your honor.” It was five minutes after 4 and Kovachevich’s eyes were rolling in frustration. When the questioning was completed, the jury was led out. Before adjourning, the judge didn’t ask, she told the attorneys they had better be ready to wrap it up tomorrow. The underlying message: speed it up, fellas.

Numbers mean a lot to Kovachevich and she has quite a few of them committed to memory. To wit: She has more than 500 civil and 200 criminal cases pending at any given time. When she came to Tampa, her docket included cases as old as 16 years, many of which have only recently been concluded. She has done her part to raise the middle district’s case completion rate from 55th out of 94 in the nation to 2nd. The middle district judges are first in case completions in the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama).

“I take a great deal of pride in that,” she says. “We provided resolutions for people. That’s what we’re there to do. We could sit and cogitate about it indefinitely and maybe we’d get through with one case in an elongated period of time. But what about all these other people waiting for our attention?

“I believe that Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist said it very well. He said that in our zeal for perfection we take so long to contemplate cases that other people are not getting any justice at all, just or unjust.

“We are getting our work out, getting our decisions out,” she concludes. “If people are not satisfied and they have a basis for appeal, fine. At least we’ve given them an answer.”


“It is never a pleasure to sentence anyone. It is a duty to perform.” — Judge Kovachevich, before sentencing Bentley A.McFarlane to 15 years in prison on drug charges


“She is singularly one of the most spectacular women I know,” says Roy Speer, a former Stetson University law school classmate of Kovachevich’s and now chairman of the board at the Home Shopping Network. He knows the federal judge about as well as anyone could.

As a student in the late 1950s, Speer used to go to school during the day and pay his way by working nights. Because Roy and Elizabeth were a bit of an item in those days, he was a regular at the Kovachevich dinner table in St. Petersburg.

“Before I went to work,” recalls Speer, “her mother used to feed me. I became like a dog — you feed ’em, they become very close.”

Speer was attracted to the future federal judge by her sense of humor, her high spirits and her fancy footwork.

“She was a fabulous dancer … one of the best,” he says. “She’s just a lot of fun to be around.”

Kovachevich was the only woman in her 1961 graduating class. There were at least two other future judges, however: Circuit Court Judges Fred Bryson and Vincent Giglio. Another Stetson alumnus of the period: State Attorney James T. Russell.

Although the judge prefers not to talk about her parents, they gently smile and look over her shoulder in two sets of photos behind her desk. Speer describes her mother as a simple person, “a great cook (with) a great sense of humor.” She must have made a good match for Kovachevich’s father, a retired postman who knew everyone in town and whom Speer affectionately calls “a clown … Very gregarious, like Elizabeth.”

Her parents’ serious illness in recent years has caused the judge to put aside her social life. It is one of the reasons she has never married, according to friends.

“She probably has one of the greatest devotions to her parents of any person I’ve ever known,” says Speer. “Elizabeth is an only child. She was always very close to her mother and father. It’s a very close-knit family. She has sacrificed her life to them.”

Hobbies are few and far between, with the little time left after working all week and caring for her parents. Kovachevich takes briefs and precedents home every weekend. She tries to find time to hit a tennis ball or run, however; photos and trophies in her conference room attest to the judge’s athletic ability.


Elizabeth Kovachevich isn’t convinced that the controversy that always seems to swirl around her has anything to do with her being a woman.

“I don’t know if it’s having a woman on the bench,” she says. “Having this woman on the bench, I would think that’s a more obvious observation.

“When I was an attorney,” remembers Kovachevich, “good friends of mine would say, ‘I really like the way you practice law.’ And I’d say, ‘Why is that?’ And they’d say to me — and mean it as a compliment — ‘Because you think like a man.'”

“It’s still a boys’ club,” says Judy Kavanaugh, “but it is changing. Judge Kovachevich has had many controversial cases. She’s a tough law ‘n order judge. She’s known for that.”

Kovachevich thinks that women have a long way to go in the legal profession before men naturally treat them as equals.

“It takes more time,” she says, “for a woman to ‘prove herself’ to whoever is looking, than perhaps for a man and that is just the way of the world. When I became the first woman judge in Pinellas County, the bar did not endorse me for the position. I had lawyers come to me and say, ‘You know they’re just waiting out there on the streets to see what you’re going to do.’ And I was bemused by that. I could almost look out the office window and see everyone lined up on the street saying, ‘I wonder what she’s going to do next?'”


©2017 All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author.

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