TAMPA — Whoever wins the hotly contested race for Hillsborough County's open District 6 commission seat is likely to face this hot-button question early in the term:
Should the county try to lure the Tampa Bay Rays across the bay with the promise of taxpayer money for a new stadium?
For five of the six candidates, the answer is, "Possibly, if it comes from tourists."
The Rays are evaluating sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas for a new ballpark — one, the team hopes, that will spur development, corporate sponsors and new fans as a year-round community asset.
Whether they choose a site in or around Tampa could come down to how much local officials are willing to commit. Among criteria the team released in February for choosing a new location is this: "The ability to structure a public-private partnership that would support the construction of the Rays' next-generation ballpark is critical."
Whether communities should help build new stadiums for professional sports teams is a contentious national debate that will soon come to Hillsborough. Proponents say there are economic and quality-of-life benefits to it, but others say tax dollars shouldn't go to a multibillion-dollar industry controlled by millionaire owners.
Only the seven-member Hillsborough County Commission can place a stadium sales tax on the ballot, and the countywide District 6 seat — one of three up for election this fall — will be open next year with incumbent Kevin Beckner moving on because of term limits. The primary election is Aug. 30.
None of the District 6 candidates favors anything resembling the Community Investment Tax — the contentious 1996 half-cent sales tax referendum spent on projects including the financing of Raymond James Stadium to keep the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from moving elsewhere.
But Democratic candidates John Dicks, Pat Kemp, Tom Scott and Brian Willis and Republican Tim Schock all are open to helping pay for a ballpark with the tourist development tax collected from each dollar spent on hotel rooms, rentals, RV parks and campgrounds.
"That way tourism is paying for the stadium instead of the citizens," said Scott, a former county commissioner and Tampa city council member.
The bed tax, as it's called, is also restricted by the state for certain uses, like promoting travel to Hillsborough or financing projects like museums, convention centers and, yes, stadiums.
Still, some candidates hold back on fully committing to that option.
Willis, a Tampa lawyer, said he was "open" to it, but cautioned against a bidding war with St. Petersburg. Similarly, Schock, who owns a local consulting company, said he is "willing to explore" the tourism tax. But he added that the state should contribute, too, to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay, much like it does with its spring training retention program.
"The retention of major-league baseball in Central Florida should be a state priority," Schock said.
But Dicks, former mayor of Plant City, embraced the tourist tax as the most logical solution.
"There's no question they're going to have to have private funds coming in," he said. "But the 6th cent would provide a bunch bonded out."
Hillsborough is likely to become a "high tourism impact" county within a year, meaning it will surpass $30 million in annual tourism tax collections. With that special designation comes the ability to increase the bed tax from 5 cents on every dollar spent to 6 cents.
The extra cent would bring in about $6 million a year, or more if several planned hotels pan out.
Republican Jim Norman, who chaired the County Commission that sent voters the Community Investment Tax to keep the Bucs and started the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to attract sporting events here, was the lone candidate to balk at financial support of a Rays move to Tampa.
Norman said he doesn't believe Tampa can afford to take on another major responsibility like a new ballpark when it already maintains Raymond James, George M. Steinbrenner Field where the New York Yankees train, and Amalie Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The county will need to save money for upkeep of those sports venues and eventually to replace them, he said.
For example, the Bucs refused to discuss a lease extension during Raymond James Stadium renovation negotiations last year with the county and the Tampa Sports Authority. Buccaneers officials could push for new or significantly upgraded digs or threaten a move when the deal is up in 12 years.
"We have to have an open conversation on which organizations you want to try to retain," Norman said. "The pot is just not deep enough."
In addition to the bed tax, Kemp and Dicks want to create a special taxing district around any new baseball stadium to capture growth in property taxes from the new development it spurs. This money could be used toward the ballpark, too. Kemp also suggested giving the Rays a portion of parking revenues as an incentive.
"Unlike football where you have your 10 games, you have so many more opportunities for economic impacts with something like the Rays," Kemp said.
Willis said Tampa's pitch could also include new transit links as part of infrastructure improvements if it would benefit the area near the new ballpark, as well as the team.
"I'm not going to buy into all of their hype of what they're saying, but they are trying to talk more about building something that is more of a community facility," Willis said. "It has to be someplace that facilitates a broader neighborhood project."
Scott said he wants to keep the Rays in the region, but bringing them to Hillsborough is not a top priority for him. Besides, Scott said, he believes all the concern over the Rays' future here is likely for naught.
"I think they're playing," he said. "They want a new stadium in St. Pete. I think they're going to work something out."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.