Hillsborough Commissioner takes shot across bow of Rays owners as stadium search drags
TAMPA -- No one has been a bigger cheerleader for the the campaign to lure the Tampa Bay Rays to Tampa than Ken Hagan.
At nearly every interval during this painstaking process, the Hillsborough County commissioner has sounded upbeat and optimistic that the Rays would eventually come to a realization that they needed to move across the Bay. For years Hagan has worked behind the scenes and publicly to scout locations and court team officials.
If the team announced plans to build a ballpark in Tampa, Hagan would show up the next day at Tropicana Field with a moving truck and boxes.
Which is why it’s quite notable that Hagan yesterday for the first time publicly expressed frustration with the Rays’ stadium search and for once was less-than-hopeful about the process.
"Unfortunately throughout the years the team hasn't shown enough sense of urgency to move on some of these locations," Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times.
The comments came in response to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg acknowledging publicly for the first time that several desirable locations for a new stadium have become unavailable over the years, including their top choice.
Whether a deal can even get done is “unknowable at this point,” though he later expressed he remained optimistic.
Hagan said the revelation wasn’t news to him. A year ago the Rays approached the owners of a Tampa Heights development along the Hillsborough River, but it was too late and the they weren’t interested in a deal.
"Bottom line is they waited too long to engage the owners there for that to become a possibility but I can say they were definitely interested in the Heights site that was on the water and it was appealing to them," Hagan said.
In a veiled but pointed remark, Hagan also seemed to question the Rays financial gumption to build a new stadium, though he wouldn’t elaborate further.
“I am confident that we will identify not only a workable location but a location that can be sustainable for decades to come,” he said. “However, I do have concerns regarding the team’s sense of urgency and their ability to have a significant investment in the ballpark." (Emphasis added)
It’s not clear at this point how much a ballpark will cost. Beyond the stadium itself, there’s also the expense of acquiring the parcel (unless they stay at the Trop site), plus the money needed for the roads and other infrastructure to support it.
Hagan has long insisted that the public appetite is nonexistent for a deal like the Community Investment Tax that gifted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a taxpayer-funded stadium in Tampa. The Rays will likely have to pay a large chunk of the costs for a new stadium on this side of the bay.
Hillsborough’s contribution would likely be in the form of tourism tax dollars collected on hotel stays, which are restricted to certain purposes, including stadium construction. But even that source is under threat from Tallahassee where House Speaker Richard Corcoran is on a mission to reign in taxpayer spending on private businesses, including sports teams.
Along those lines, Hagan doesn’t expect the Legislature to contribute anything to a new Rays ballpark, even though it has on the books programs to support stadium construction and baseball retention.
Hagan hopes to soon bring forth the preferred ballpark site of the Hillsborough group of local officials and business leaders that is working to lure the Rays here, as well as a proposed funding package.
He wouldn't say what they were but asked about the area between downtown Tampa and Ybor City, which includes the Tampa Heights site and another potential location, Tampa Park Apartments, Hagan said: "That general location certainly meets the team’s criteria with respect to their guiding principles and primarily being in or around an urban environment is paramount. So yes, that general area I would say is certainly being considered."
Given Sternberg’s comments Thursday and Hagan’s growing frustration with their pace and financial situation, did he still think the Rays want to be in Tampa Bay? Or is this all a ruse to say they tried their hardest to make it work here but it wasn’t in the cards?
Hagan believes the team is “100 percent” committed to the region.
"While I’m frustrated with the owners’ lack of urgency, I can tell you that the (Rays) leadership here in Tampa Bay is working night and day to find a workable solution,” he said. “(President) Brian Auld and (vice president for strategy and development) Melanie Lenz, they’re engaging consultants and spending money; you can’t fake that. That’s legitimate. But I would really like to see a sense of urgency from the ownership."