Ken Hagan optimistic about Rays to Tampa after St. Pete elections: 'Hillsborough County is ready'
TAMPA — The victory party for Lisa Wheeler-Brown may have been in St. Petersburg, but on the other side of the bay Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan was celebrating, too.
Wheeler-Brown’s decisive win over Will Newton in the District 7 St. Petersburg council race is expected to open the doors for the Tampa Bay Rays to explore new sites away from Tropicana Field. She has supported efforts to let the Rays look, and should be the swing vote that allows it to happen.
“I would characterize it as excellent news not only for St. Pete but for Tampa Bay,” said Hagan, who has long pushed for a Rays move. “It’s appears the ball will be in the rays court here very soon and the team will not have any excuses for why it can’t search for a reasonable site so I advise they take advantage.”
Hagan has spearheaded efforts to prepare Hillsborough County for this day in hopes of luring the team across the bridge to Tampa. He organized the workgroup, consisting of Tampa Mayor Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay president Brian Lamb, to study how to best accommodate a team in Tampa and to eliminate the initial legwork in hopes of speeding up the process once a decision is made.
With Tuesday’s election, Hagan said he’s anxious for the Rays to move quickly to convince stakeholders that the team is serious about finding a permanent solution in the area.
“I remain convinced that the Rays want to remain in the Tampa Bay region for the long term,” he said. “And it appears that very soon they’ll be given the opportunity to prove that.
Previous discussions and studies about a Hillsborough stadium have centered on two areas: Westshore and the downtown Tampa area, whether that’s Channelside, Ybor City or another dense, urban zone. Hagan doesn’t expect that to change.
“Most of your recent models have been smaller venues in urban environments,” he said. “With 81 games, you’ll need to find a location that has the demographics to support it. And both of those two geographical areas rank very high within that model.”
Funding will be another critical component to any deal. The appetite for using taxpayer dollars to support a new stadium is minimal and scrutiny has intensified amid growing national coverage of government funding of arenas.
Hagan said there won’t be a tax hike to pay for a stadium, and “were not going to have a sweet-heart deal such as what happened with Raymond James Stadium,” the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hagan is a board member for the Tampa Sports Authority, which owns Raymond James.
Hagan envisioned a public-private partnership where the county helps pay for infrastructure improvements to support the stadium, and the Rays and the private sector pay for the new building. In October 2014, Hillsborough County quietly hired a law firm with ties to Major League Baseball and experience working on these kinds of deals.
It’s unclear whether the lame duck St. Petersburg City Council will continue to block the Rays from searching until the new council is seated in January, or if they’ll back off and cede to the wishes of the incoming members.
Regardless, Hagan said, “Hillsborough county is ready.”
“We look forward to having a meaningful dialogue to determine what the Rays long term goals and plans and needs are,” he added. “I’m hopeful we can reach a solution to keep the team in Tampa Bay for years to come.”