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How soon will Tampa Bay Rays make ballpark decision now that St. Petersburg mayoral race decided?

By Steve Contorno
DIRK SHADD | Times
The area Hillsborough County is pitching as the sire for the Tampa Bay Rays Channel District-Ybor City park. Pictured is the area just east of the roundabout off Channelside Drive at E. 4th Avenue looking south and east with the Selmon Expressway pictured on right.

The assumption in Hillsborough County has always been that the Tampa Bay Rays were unlikely to move on the ballpark issue until after the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

It ended last night. So how quickly should baseball fans expect a decision?

If recent history is an indicator, then not very.

The Rays as a practice don't like to talk about the business side during the Major League Baseball season. So circle March 29 as a soft deadline.

But to date, it has not played out so seamlessly. The city of St. Petersburg gave the Rays permission to hunt for a new home around Tampa Bay in January 2016. After, any time Hillsborough County Commissioner Hagan was asked when to expect a ballpark announcement, he replied with some variation of: "Hopefully soon."

In October — 22 months later — Hagan finally announced the proposed location on the outskirts of Ybor City.

Hagan said he was told Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and President Brian Auld "would like to move quickly" after the election. And during the baseball season, Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times that the team could make a "quick" decision once Hillsborough gave its pitch.

"We have sites in mind, and it's a question of what will get done around the site and how are they going to get paid for," Sternberg said in July. "And once municipalities are able to line those things up, not completely buttoned up but at least to a good extent, then we'll be able to make a decision."

Notice, there's a key piece missing from Sternberg's criteria for a complete proposal: How to pay for it.

Hillsborough still has to figure that out. Any proposal must also get approval from the rest of the county commission and the city of Tampa, an increasingly distant partner in this endeavor.

In October, Hagan acknowledged the process has moved slower than he expected and some of the most difficult conversations lie ahead, tempering expectations of a fast turnaround.

"It took a year and a half just to identify the preferred location and get site control," he said. "And determining a financial plan is going to get even more challenging."

It seems the Rays are unlikely to go all in on a Tampa ballpark only knowing half the equation. They've also been extremely tight-lipped about their intentions — other than insisting they want to stay in the region — as well as diligent and deliberate in their dealings with the officials on both sides of Tampa Bay. It would be uncharacteristic of them to announce they've chosen to move to Ybor City and then start a thorny, public negotiation over financing figures.

To that point, Auld released a very diplomatic and noticeably noncommittal response to Hagan's proposal last month. It would be weighed, he said, against redeveloping Tropicana Field and other Pinellas County options.

For its part, Hillsborough has signaled it doesn't anticipate a swift negotiation. The option agreement between a county-aligned non-profit and the landowner of the proposed Ybor ballpark, Darryl Shaw, is in place for nine months with a chance to extend the deal by another half a year.

Still, to the casual observer, much of what the Rays have publicly hoped for has come to fruition in the last two years: St. Petersburg let them search for a new facility away from Tropicana Field; Hillsborough has a site on the table that (county officials say) the Rays helped pick out; the mayor's race is over and their financially backed candidate, Mayor Rick Kriseman, won.

With about 14 months before the three-year deal with St. Pete expires, people are going to expect action, or they will start to question the team's long term commitment to Tampa, which Hagan hinted at last summer.

"It doesn't need to take years to create the partnership required for a new ballpark," he said. "But it does take leadership at the ownership level to get us across the finish line."