Saturday, November 18, 2017
News Roundup

Key to Rays stadium? Location, location, location. (Also money, money money.)(w/video)

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Well, that was a stinker of a bombshell.

The formal announcement of Hillsborough County’s proposed site for a Rays baseball stadium in Ybor City seemed a few octaves shy of harmonious on Tuesday.

Where were the Rays?

Where was Tampa’s mayor?

Where were the Cracker Jack and Ybor City cigars?

And, if you want to be a real stickler, where was the $700 million?

All good questions, and no good answers.

I’m not trying to knock on Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, who helped put the land package together and announced it Tuesday without including anyone else. Hagan has done much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the Ybor site and justifiably deserves credit.

But this saga is a long way from being over, and it’s going to take a lot more cooperation than what we saw here. The Rays and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn were both aware the land package was essentially done, but neither knew the announcement was coming Tuesday.

And neither seemed particularly enthusiastic about the timing.

"If this deal gets done, it’s going to take all parties holding hands and moving together," Buckhorn told me Wednesday. "That means no surprises, no double crosses, no showboating."

Some suspect the timing might have had something to do with the upcoming mayoral election in St. Petersburg. By promoting the Ybor site two weeks before the election, Hagan has opened the door for fellow Republican Rick Baker to accuse Rick Kriseman of allowing the Rays to slip away from St. Pete.

But, the reality is, that’s still a long, long way from happening.

Everyone knew it was going to be difficult to find desirable, and available, land in Hillsborough. And everyone knew it was going to be even more difficult to find available money to build on that land.

And that’s where we are today.

The Rays will probably wait a couple of weeks until the World Series and the mayoral election are over and then confirm that, yes, the Ybor site is at the top of their wish list.

But they will not, and realistically should not, fully commit to the site until a finan­cing plan is put together. If they embrace Ybor with both arms, and then discover there is no political will to help fund the stadium, they’d have to slink back to St. Pete with hats in hand.

It’s sort of the difference between going steady and getting engaged.

Now, when it comes to the money, the Rays were once willing to commit about $150 million toward a downtown St. Petersburg stadium, so let’s assume they will throw in about $200 million this time.

That means coming up with at least $500 million more in public funds.

That ain’t going to come from property taxes, and it ain’t going to come from an increased sales tax. The type of referendum that built Raymond James Stadium in the 1990s is not viable today.

So that means being creative with ideas like rental car surcharges or a special tourism development district. Even then, the city and county will probably have to cobble together multiple funding sources.

"In this political climate, there is no way you can go to voters and ask them to pay for a baseball stadium," Buckhorn said. "I’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers, and I’m not going to burden them with a deal that doesn’t make sense.

"I’m hoping (Hagan) has a secret financing plan to go along with his secret land assemblage plan. Because the Rays deserve our very best effort — and I’m willing to do my part — but it’s going to be a tough slog."

What happens if the financing plan doesn’t come together in the next 15 months, which is how long the Rays have to negotiate with Hillsborough under terms of an escape clause they have at Tropicana Field?

My guess is nothing.

Kriseman has said all along that he believed the Rays would eventually build a new stadium at the Tropicana site because of the available land and potential funding mechanisms.

But I’m not sure the Rays would be willing to invest money in a new stadium at a site that has consistently underperformed for two decades.

So that means they just keep playing at the Trop. And the calendar keeps creeping closer to the end of the stadium use agreement in 2027 when the team is free to move anywhere it likes. Meanwhile, the land surrounding Tropicana goes undeveloped for a decade.

Hard to see anyone winning in that scenario.

Which is why cooperation today is imperative.

   
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