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Hillsborough business leaders to explore financing options for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium

TAMPA — Hillsborough business leaders may soon look for creative ways to finance a new baseball stadium without necessarily relying on taxes.

The Tampa Bay Rays have made no secret about wanting to ditch Tropicana Field, possibly for a new stadium across the bay. The city of St. Petersburg, their landlord for the next 17 years, wants the Rays to honor their contract and stay in Pinellas.

This stalemate increases the risk that the team could leave the area altogether, Chuck Sykes, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said this week.

So the chamber's executive committee recently voted to make stadium finance one of the organization's top three focuses for 2011. The full chamber board will vote on the recommendation later this month.

Baseball is not "typically our responsibility,'' Sykes said. "But we don't want to be caught flat-footed. We want to study how other stadiums have been done around the country, and maybe that will help the conversation.''

The chamber will purposely avoid discussions about stadium sites, Sykes said. "That's a very sensitive topic. We want to work on the other part: How can a community in today's economic environment fund one?''

The chamber typically deals with Hillsborough issues, he said, and "we will be ready'' if the Rays and St. Petersburg settle their differences and Tampa sites come into play.

But if a new stadium ends up in Pinellas, any financing ideas the chamber develops might apply there as well, Sykes said. The chamber "does not want to lose the Rays in the region. We are not in the mind set of if they are not in Hillsborough, they could leave.''

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster declined to comment in any detail. The city has offered to discuss possible new stadium sites in Pinellas, but the Rays have refused to engage in any talks that do not also include Hillsborough sites.

Given the team's position, "I really can't comment on the issue of stadium construction,'' Foster said.

Sykes stressed that the Tampa chamber has not talked to the Rays and does not intend to.

If the chamber sticks to that pledge, "they can study all they want,'' Foster said. "When they reach out to one of the parties (to the Trop contract) then it becomes a legal issue.''

The Rays, as is their usual practice, declined to comment on stadium issues.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio welcomed the initiative, as long as the chamber respects St. Petersburg's interest.

"There are a lot of good people associated with the chamber,'' she said. "The fact that they want to devote their time — all volunteer time — to look into possible funding sources and what other communities have done, that is an analysis that needs to occur.''

The idea of researching stadium finance arose during a chamber strategic planning meeting in late November. The executive committee hopes to appoint three "caucuses'' that will concentrate on specific issues throughout the year. The other two issues center on education and local government.

Sykes said the chamber would look for stadium revenue streams "that wouldn't put so much burden on taxpayers.''

They might involve ancillary land development, he said, or a concept known as "venture philanthropy,'' where wealthy people invest in projects designed to benefit communities but also create profit for the investor.

A complex might include, for example, amateur youth baseball fields as well as a stadium, he said.

"I don't know if that would work for us,'' he said, "but that's an example of where I would like to have folks really run it down and see if it is applicable for our region.''

Stadium construction usually depends on tax money of some kind — particularly in small to medium markets, where sports tend to generate less income than large metro areas.

"We may discover that this is going to be a very difficult exercise,'' Sykes said. "But we want to be managed by facts, not conjecture.''

Stuart Rogel, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a cross-bay business group, said getting private enterprise involved in the stadium debate could only help.

"I would encourage anybody — the Tampa chamber, the St. Pete Chamber, the city of St. Petersburg, whoever, to look at the options and figure out how do we keep the team here and build a new stadium,'' Rogel said.

"This is going to take a community effort to make this work.''

Hillsborough business leaders to explore financing options for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium 11/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 2, 2010 7:08am]

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