Could hunt for stadium lead Tampa Bay Rays to ... Oldsmar?

Near the county line, it offers the prospect of Hillsborough and Pinellas tax dollars.
Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis met with team officials at Tropicana Field on Tuesday.
Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis met with team officials at Tropicana Field on Tuesday.
Published April 16 2016
Updated April 17 2016

When the Tampa Bay Rays announced their dream list of ingredients for a new stadium site in February, regional connectivity was high on the list.

That was music to Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis' ears. For several years, he had kicked around the idea of luring the Rays to this city of 14,000.

After all, the northern Pinellas County city that hugs the Hills-borough border is practically middle ground in Rays country. In fact, 120 acres of undeveloped land owned by Tampa Bay Downs lies just to the west of Race Track Road, the actual county line.

"When we started this conversation 2 1/2 years ago it was kind of tongue in cheek, but the more we talked to people, the more it made sense," Bevis said.

Residents of St. Petersburg or Tampa, or much of their respective counties for that matter, might be forgiven in raising an eyebrow when "Oldsmar" and "Rays stadium" are mentioned in the same breath.

Yet just last week, three bay area lawmakers — state Reps. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, Larry Ahern, R-Seminole and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater — all said Oldsmar would be a likely spot for the Rays to build their new home. No one mentioned a new stadium at Tropicana Field.

On Tuesday, Bevis and city manager Bruce Haddock met with Rays executives Brian Auld and Melanie Lenz at the Trop for about an hour.

Bevis said he gave a "nickel tour" of the town. For instance, the Rays executives didn't know that Oldsmar's origins began in 1916 when Ransom E. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, bought 37,541 acres.

What stuck in the minds of Auld and Lenz when Bevis finished his pitch?

"It definitely has the potential of funding from both counties," Bevis said. "That's one thing they indicated."

The Rays issued a statement Friday that didn't directly address the funding possibilities.

"We are committed to taking a fresh look at all possibilities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in our search for a new ballpark site," said Lenz. "We will utilize our ballpark vision process document as a guide to help us determine the pitch perfect site."

Drawing tax money from both counties is the obvious advantage. The Tampa Bay Downs owns 350 acres on the Hillsborough side of the line, so working with one landowner would also be a plus.

Representatives with Tampa Bay Downs didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Having as many funding sources as possible benefits the Rays and Pinellas, which could bode well for a stadium in Oldsmar. But would the city's proximity to Hillsborough be enough to pry loose that county's dollars?

"Realistically, that's going to be a tall order," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. "In a perfect world we could create a regional funding package to make the money work. But, with significant unfunded challenges, it makes it difficult to invest the funds in another county."

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, who represents Oldsmar, said the idea is intriguing and leaders in both counties should be open to exploring a regional funding option.

"When it comes to transit, economic development and major league sports, we have to look at things regionally. If you're not looking at things regionally at some of these issues, then I think we're missing the boat. Yet sometimes provincial thinking doesn't allow it," Eggers said.

Eggers, who attended the Clearwater breakfast, said it was telling that no one predicted a new stadium would be built at the Tropicana Field site. The long stalemate between St. Petersburg and the Rays has frustrated many, he said.

"I want all options explored," Eggers said.

Most agree that infrastructure to transport thousands of Rays fans to Oldsmar presents a challenge.

Tampa Road could handle the traffic, Bevis said, adding that large crowds frequently attend the races and simulcasts at Tampa Bay Downs without gridlock.

Plus, the CSX line runs right by the site. Maybe a Rays stadium would spur the political action needed to acquire the old railroad line being marketed by CSX and adapt it for mass transit, he said.

"If there's a will, there's a way," Bevis said.

Kevin King, chief of staff for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, dismissed the idea as failing to meet the Rays' stated criteria for a new stadium. Oldsmar, he said, won't have the "arrive-early, stay-late" appeal of an urban center.

"If the Rays want to alienate St. Petersburg and Tampa, it may be ideal," King said. "To me, Oldsmar's like Georgia."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected]

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