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Hillsborough official: Rays picked Ybor ballpark site, not county

By Steve Contorno
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has headed the county's efforts to attract the Tampa Bay Rays. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]

TAMPA — The Ybor City site announced last week as the preferred spot for a Tampa ballpark was chosen by the Tampa Bay Rays not Hillsborough County, according to County Administrator Mike Merrill.

In fact, the announced location "may not have been our choice given all other considerations," Merrill told county commissioners at a Wednesday board meeting.

That characterization of behind-the-scenes conversations about the site seems to differ considerably from Commissioner Ken Hagan’s enthusiastic unveiling last week of the 14 acres on the corner of Channelside Drive and Fourth Avenue.

Hagan described the selection as a collaborative decision, and said the "Ybor site became both the team’s and our preferred site" after "discussing the benefits and challenges" of every option.

For their part, the Rays have publicly maintained an arm’s-length relationship from Hillsborough’s selection process. The front office has repeatedly said it was waiting for the county to present a site that the team could evaluate against other proposals in Pinellas County.

Merrill’s comments came after several county commissioners demanded to know why they were still in the dark a week after Hagan went public with the site.

At the end of the board meeting, Commissioner Pat Kemp asked why the agenda did not include a discussion about Hagan’s big unveil.

Kemp said she has no idea what to tell constituents when they call her office for more information about the proposal. Commissioners haven’t discussed the Rays since September 2016 when they named Hagan the board’s point person for negotiations with the team. That was before Kemp took office.

"It could have been valuable to have an update today," Kemp said. "There was a promise to have more frequent updates, and it has been quite a long time."

Merrill said any briefing would have to come from Hagan, not the county staff. By that point, Hagan had already left the meeting.

Then, Merrill added:

"This was the Rays’ choice. It was the only choice. We showed them a number of sites. This was not Ken Hagan’s choice. This wasn’t this board’s choice. It wasn’t my choice. At this point we are still at the mercy of the Rays with respect to selection because they’re the ones that have to play there.

"It was not correct the way the media has represented that this was a county or even county board choice,’’ he said. "It was the Rays’ choice of land after showing them a number of parcels. The next part of this will be to see if we can make this work from a financial point of view."

Hagan did not respond to a voicemail Wednesday. The Rays declined to comment. In a statement last week, Rays president Brian Auld said of the proposed Tampa location: "We look forward to getting to work evaluating this option."

With Hagan gone, his six colleagues discussed whether it was time to change strategy on Rays negotiations.

Board chairman Stacy White wondered out loud whether the need for Hagan to take the lead had come to an end. Hagan, the county’s longest-tenured commissioner, has spearheaded negotiations with the Rays for several years and has made relocating the team to Tampa one of his top issues.

"Does that delegated authority need to continue on at this point or should it be moved over into staff’s hands?" White asked.

Other commissioners dismissed that idea.

"This is a major deal and the Rays need to hear a clear message from us that we’re not jumping off the train," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "We’ve got to stay a steady course. We’ve got the engineer and let him do what he does best."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.