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Business group asks Tampa, St. Petersburg about finance options for new Rays stadium

What money could Tampa or St. Petersburg contribute to finance a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays? And where, exactly, might it come from?

Those are questions a Chamber of Commerce task force studying ways to pay for a new ballpark — and keep the team in the region — is asking each city.

It's good to be prepared, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday.

"We need to be in a position if the day comes to move and to move quickly, and not spend six months figuring out what we can and we can't do," he said.

In the meantime, he said, he will not interfere with St. Petersburg's discussions with the Rays about their future. The Rays have said Tropicana Field doesn't draw enough fans for the team to stay through 2027, when their contract with St. Petersburg expires.

Tampa officials are pulling together information on the city's community redevelopment areas, its capacity to borrow money from the bond market and how much money will be available when the city pays off the debt for the Tampa Convention Center.

"It could be some creative idea comes out of that information, but the information that we're going to be providing is going to be basic information," Tampa chief of staff Santiago Corrada said Wednesday.

The group doing the asking is the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus, a joint effort of the chambers from Tampa and St. Petersburg. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, led by Chuck Sykes, came up with the idea for a private effort to look at financing possibilities last year. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce joined in May.

The inquiries are meant to get a sense of the ways that many different pieces of stadium financing — everything from parking revenues to state funding to private equity — might come together.

Along the way, the caucus has looked at financing for other stadiums around the country, talked to state officials and heard what can happen when building a stadium is a purely private effort and the owner goes out of business. (The place sits empty.)

It has even heard from a University of South Florida economist who thinks that providing public support for ballparks is economically unsound.

"What we're doing is continuing the process of just getting a complete understanding of the lay of the land," Tampa chamber president Bob Rohrlack said.

One thing the group is not doing is looking at a stadium in any particular place.

"I'm looking at how do you finance things like this? How do you structure the financing?" said Jeff Hearn, a Raymond James senior vice president who chairs the finance structure committee of the caucus. "We are absolutely committed to not talking about where the stadium goes."

The caucus also has been in discussion with St. Petersburg City Hall, where Mayor Bill Foster looks forward to seeing a report from the group.

"I think they're talking to everybody, at least the cities that have the wherewithal," Foster said. "I agreed to cooperate with that group so long as their studies were site-neutral."

As he has said in the past, Buckhorn said that if the Rays leave St. Petersburg, he would like to see them land in downtown Tampa, preferably in the Channel District area.

He's open to the idea of the city paying for infrastructure improvements, maybe contributing land and doing landscaping or streetscaping. But he doesn't see city money going into the construction of the stadium.

"We're not building a stadium," he said.

Early on, the caucus also met with the Rays for a primer on the business of Major League Baseball, but it has not yet talked to the team about what money it could put into a financing package.

Rohrlack expects the group to give an update on its efforts in May 2012.

Business group asks Tampa, St. Petersburg about finance options for new Rays stadium 09/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2011 9:18am]

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