Hagan, Buckhorn ready to talk if St. Petersburg and Rays agree to allow broader stadium site search
Two of Hillsborough’s top elected officials stand ready to talk if the Tampa Bay Rays and city of St. Petersburg reach an agreement to let the team explore possible stadium sites outside of Pinellas County.
But neither Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn nor Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ken Hagan is eager to reach for the public’s checkbook to cover the cost of a new ballpark.
“It’s got to be a partnership,” Buckhorn said Wednesday when asked what the Rays ought to know going into any discussion with Hillsborough officials.
“Both sides have to have skin in the game. Obviously, the Rays have to have a lot more skin in the game than not,” he said. “Our commitment, given this opportunity, would be to put our best minds to the task. I don’t know what the deal would look like at the end. I don’t know how much it would cost. I don’t know where it would be located, but I think the Rays and the region deserve our best efforts.
“Tampa is a baseball town,” the mayor said. “We’ve got as long a history of baseball in this town as any place in America. I think the Rays would be warmly received here.”
Likewise, Hagan said the team and the private sector would have to fund “most, if not all” of any stadium construction.
“We’re not going to raise taxes to pay for a stadium, and Hillsborough County’s not going to build a stadium,” he said. Referring to the 1996 voter-approved creation of a half-penny sales tax to pay for a home for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hagan said, “there will be another Raymond James Stadium sweetheart deal.”
Still, Hagan and Buckhorn welcomed the news that lawyers from the team and St. Petersburg City Hall have been working on a draft agreement to allow the Rays to look at potential stadium sites in both St. Petersburg and Tampa.
“I’m encouraged to hear the news, and hopefully, this will be sooner rather than later,” Hagan said.
Negotiating such an agreement would be a “significant step forward,” Buckhorn said. “It’s long overdue. If it indeed is accurate, I applaud Mayor (Bill) Foster and the Rays for reaching that common ground. … The status quo can’t continue.”
Buckhorn and Hagan each have a long-standing interest in talking to the Rays if the team leaves St. Petersburg, and each had his own ideas about who ought to be at the table if the discussions were to take place.
Hagan said envisions forming a group with himself, Buckhorn, as well as perhaps representatives of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Sports Authority — “maybe a four- or five-person group.”
Buckhorn said he would expect the group to include himself, Hagan, top city development official Bob McDonaugh, County Administrator Mike Merrill, perhaps Tampa Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick and perhaps Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who owns substantial real estate holdings near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
“He’s the largest landowner in the Channelside area,” Buckhorn said. “Clearly that would be a potential site, so it would be natural that he would be involved in these conversations.”
Around downtown, Buckhorn said, the sites that have emerged as “likely sites” include Vinik’s land, the current location of the ConAgra Mills plant and the Tampa Park Apartments, next to Nuccio Parkway and south of E Seventh Avenue.
“We’d need to look at all options, and I think the Rays will look at all options,” Buckhorn said. “We’re not wedded to a particular site.”
While each said a Bucs-style stadium deal based on a voter-approved tax increase is out of the question, Buckhorn and Hagan did say some forms of public participation are possible.
Buckhorn's administration has estimated that it could contribute about $100 million to a downtown stadium project once the city pays off the last of the bonds on the Tampa Convention Center in 2015. Buckhorn does not see the money freed up by paying off the convention center debt as a tax increase since it is already being collected inside the city's downtown community redevelopment area. The city is prohibited from spending it on anything other than capital improvements and infrastructure in the defined downtown redevelopment area.
Hagan said he could see the financing include money raised through the federal "EB-5" immigration program. Federal officials set aside 10,000 visas a year for the program, which allow foreigners to obtain a temporary visa by investing $1 million into a project that will create at least 10 jobs, or $500,000 for 10 jobs in high-unemployment areas. If the jobs remain after two years, the visa converts to a green card, granting permanent residency.
“There are various ways that both the city and county potentially will be involved, but without question the Rays and the private sector are going to be tasked with constructing a stadium,” Hagan said.
Neither official thought that talking with the Rays about stadium possibilities would necessarily conflict with another giant public policy discussion that’s looming — what to do about the area’s underperforming transportation network and lack of mass transit options.
A transportation policy group that includes the County Commission and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities has begun meeting to discuss coming up with a transportation plan and a way to pay for it. On Tuesday, the group heard from several local CEOs that the region’s transportation problems make it harder to recruit new companies and young talent.
Together, Buckhorn said, baseball and an improved mass transit system could transform the area “in ways that we don’t even imagine.”
“Over the next decade, I think we could accomplish both of those and I think they would complement each other,” he said.
The job of elected officials, Buckhorn said, “is to dream big and to inspire the community to believe that they can pull off big things.”
“If you do it in bite-sized chunks you’re never going to get the the promised land,” he said. “I think we’re capable of being a big-time city. … We showed the world when we did the (Republican National Convention) we can pull things off. We can do the same thing here.”
An edited version of this report appears in the July 25, 2013 edition of the Tampa Bay Times.