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Commissioner pitches way to help new Rays stadium in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners sounded out their initial concerns Wednesday about their administrator's $3 billion budget proposal, about cuts to parks programs and road building.

Then Commissioner Ken Hagan whirled a curveball.

Responding to a proposal from Administrator Mike Merrill to use special taxing districts to spur development, Hagan asked whether such a scheme could be used to help a baseball stadium.

Why, yes, it can, Merrill said.

In fact, one of the districts he proposes includes the Florida State Fairgrounds, a location developers have explored for a Tampa Bay Rays stadium site should the team seek to leave St. Petersburg. "It would certainly be a great site because the transportation network is already in place there," Merrill said.

The room stirred. The eyebrows of other commissioners raised. Those who moments earlier had praised the idea of special taxing districts to spur development found themselves backpedaling. "When I talked about economic development and a (tax district) at the fairgrounds, I specifically was not talking about a baseball stadium," said Commissioner Les Miller, who represents neighborhoods around there. "I like the Rays also, but I was not talking about a baseball stadium."

Hagan said after the meeting that he is not working any angles, while confirming he also broached the topic during a social get-together Monday with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Hagan said he knows of no specific, concrete plans moving forward to build a baseball stadium in Hillsborough County and is not trying to lay the groundwork. He said he was simply putting on record the idea that tax districts are a way to use public money without asking residents generally for a tax increase.

Under the proposal, the fairgrounds and surrounding land would be designated as a "community redevelopment area." As the economy rebounds and construction takes place, increased property tax money from rising values would go to pay for roads, sewer pipes and other infrastructure in the immediate area.

Hagan said that as he has talked to people around the country where other stadiums have been built and the so-called tax-increment financing has been a strategy used to pay for the public infrastructure they require. The team or other private interests then pay much, or all, of the stadium costs.

"I just want to point that out," Hagan said. "It came up in the context of the fairgrounds, but my comment was not directed at the fairgrounds."

The Rays' ownership group says the team's home, domed Tropicana Field doesn't draw enough fans or have the money-raising amenities of a modern stadium. The owners say the team can't be there through the 2027 expiration date on their contract with St. Petersburg.

Hagan has been the lone politician on his side of Tampa Bay to publicly argue that officials in the Tampa area need a plan for ensuring the Rays stay in the region.

He said his conversation with Buckhorn, which covered topics such as improving city-county relations, was general in nature.

Buckhorn confirmed that the topic came up over drinks at Taps in downtown. He said he largely reiterated his campaign stance on the topic — that he doesn't think officials on his side of the bay should be interfering in the relationship between the Rays and St. Petersburg.

That said, he also said that if the day should come where it looks like the team will leave Pinellas County, he would want the team to remain in the region.

And Buckhorn said he would prefer it be in or near downtown Tampa, and believes a special taxing district could help cover some costs. "It's a vehicle in which the city could participate without having to go to the taxpayers and asking them for additional revenue, which I'm not going to do," Buckhorn said.

Both Buckhorn and Hagan said they have had no contact from a group connected to past stadium deals that recently purchased land in the Channel District, another speculated site for a new Rays home.

The special taxing districts on their own might have been the highlight of Wednesday's discussion. Merrill was floating ideas for how the county can come up with money to spur the economy and create jobs at the same time he is proposing 449 job cuts in response to declining taxes.

The city of Tampa has created several tax increment financing districts to raise money for roads and other amenities in specific locales, such as downtown and Ybor City, to encourage private-sector building.

Merrill's budget proposal suggests the county get in the game with potentially three such districts: the fairgrounds area, Ruskin and around the University of South Florida. He said the fair area was ideal since, together with an amphitheater and popular casino, it draws up to 10 million visitors a year, making it ripe for development if nudged.

Major roadways serve the area and, as taxes rise with an economic rebound and new construction, the increased revenue can be plowed into making the local roadway network better.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Commissioner pitches way to help new Rays stadium in Hillsborough 06/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 8:47am]
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