Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Business

Rays discuss nine potential ballpark sites with Tampa, Hillsborough officials

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Rays executives met with Tampa and Hillsborough County officials Tuesday for their first discussion of specific potential baseball stadium sites in the county.

They spent nearly two hours going over nine sites both inside and outside the Tampa city limits — seven presented by the Hillsborough group, two more by the Rays.

"A very productive meeting," said Hillsborough County Commission Ken Hagan, who hopes the list can be culled to two to four sites over the next month or so.

"There are a good number of options," Rays president Brian Auld said after the closed-door meeting in downtown Tampa. "We sort of went through them, one by one, talked pros and cons."

Afterward, the Rays would not discuss any of the sites. Elected officials confirmed only a partial list: the Tampa Park Apartments site near downtown, the Jefferson High School site in West Shore, the Tampa Greyhound Track, some docks near Ybor City now used by International Ship Repair, the Florida State Fairgrounds east of the city and the Heights property just north of Interstate 275.

Not mentioned was land near Raymond James Stadium, Port Tampa Bay's cruise ship port or the downtown site of the ConAgra flour mill. ConAgra's property is seen as too small, while moving the flour mill to a new home would be too expensive, officials say.

"I have not heard a discussion about ConAgra in months," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Buckhorn said the Heights property — 49 acres just north of I-275 on a scenic bend in the Hillsborough River — was one of the sites the Rays brought up.

"That site is consistent with the team's (desire for) local flair and authenticity as far as taking advantage of (a location) on the water," Hagan said.

But developer Adam Harden said his team is moving ahead with its plans — a redevelopment of the old red-brick trolley barn, plus 1,900 apartments or condominiums, 100 boat slips, and 260,000 square feet of offices, stores and cafes, — and is not engaged in any discussion of putting a stadium on the property.

"We're excited about the project; it doesn't include a baseball stadium," he said. He said that if you look at where the city built parking garages in Ybor City and the northern part of downtown, other sites, such as the Tampa Park Apartments, are better candidates for a ballpark.

Asked whether the Rays have a similar list of potential stadium sites in Pinellas County, Auld said, not yet.

"We have yet to engage with (St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's) Baseball Forever group in a similar manner," he said. "And so we and Pinellas County have not gone back and forth on any specific sites to this point.

"I suspect that we will do it at some point," he said. "We don't have a plan in the near future to do so. As you know, the mayor has got his process for the Tropicana Field site, which is his No. 1 candidate for our new home."

Auld said he has had a couple of meetings with Pinellas County commissioners and county administrator Mark Woodard "about what possibilities over there may be, and at some point they will likely reach out to us to discuss those sites as well."

Auld said Tuesday's discussion did not eliminate any of the Hillsborough sites discussed.

"At this point, we really are keeping everything on the table," he said. "There are some that may prove to be a little bit stronger. In the coming months, we will be able to narrow it down a little bit. There are just so many variables at play right now. We think it's best to keep an open mind on all of them."

The discussion did not go into, for example, how many suites a ballpark might have, how seats would be arranged or how the outfield might be configured.

Rather, the two sides discussed how each site might connect to a regional transit plan, how each might promote walkability, which ones might have easier access to parking and the ways that each site could "contribute to our goal of having the facility open 365 days a year and active to the public at large," Auld said.

Auld also said it might not be possible to acquire some sites talked about Tuesday.

"Some simply may not be for sale," he said. "Some may have logistical concerns. There might be assembly issues. There may be plans for public projects that we're not all totally aware of yet. We need to take a look and really determine the feasibility and viability for the sites that are under consideration."

Hagan said both sides will work to scrutinize each potential site so they identify a few that are top-tier. He hopes that can happen when they meet again in late June.

With a shorter list, Hagan said officials could examine more closely the financing possibilities for each.

"Each location potentially has different financial options," he said.

The cost of a new ballpark has been estimated at $400 million to $700 million, depending on its features, configuration and type of roof.

Based on where a stadium was built, officials have said there could be up to 10 different sources of funding. Along with money from the team, those could include property taxes earmarked for community redevelopment in areas like downtown Tampa, rental car surcharges, some hotel bed taxes, money authorized by the Legislature, ticket user fees and foreign investment available through the federal government's EB-5 visa program.

Auld said he would be "very surprised" if the team announced a decision on its search before the end of this year's baseball season, "and it could be some time after that."

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or [email protected] Follow @Danielson_Times

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