TAMPA — Until now, Hillsborough County's elected leaders have steered clear of the Tampa Bay Rays stadium debate. That's St. Petersburg's business, they say, and Hillsborough's strained public resources can't afford new sports ventures.
But on Monday, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan wrote a letter to a community coalition pondering the Rays' future. Its message, in short: Let's talk baseball.
In another development, hints have surfaced that a private group is trying to assemble potential stadium land in downtown Tampa. Located just north of the St. Pete Times Forum, the site would be a tight squeeze for baseball but could piggy-back with nearby entertainment venues for parking.
The Rays have said they need a new, revenue-rich stadium before 2027, when their contract to play at Tropicana Field expires. A report by the ABC Coalition warns that the team will leave town without a new stadium.
Hagan said he does not want to interfere with St. Petersburg's relationship with the Rays. He simply asked ABC chairman Jeff Lyash to present the group's findings to county commissioners.
"Please understand that it is not my intention to suggest any specific site or to offer any public funding mechanism or participation," Hagan wrote. "However, I strongly believe that major league baseball is of critical importance to the entire region from both economic and quality of life perspectives. And I, for one, feel it is in the best interests of our community to keep major league baseball in Tampa Bay."
Hagan will brief his fellow commissioners about his invite when the board meets Wednesday. Already, it has attracted one significant detractor.
Commissioner Jim Norman said Hagan's overture could be viewed by the city of St. Petersburg as tampering.
"He's not speaking for me."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has rejected a coalition bid to present its findings to the City Council, saying stadium discussions should remain between the city and the Rays.
But Foster said he welcomes Hagan's initiative. "It's great that Hillsborough County is ready to address the support of major league baseball in St. Petersburg," Foster said. "I've wanted their support for years.
"ABC can't move the team anywhere, so I'm sure it's information gathering only."
By all appearances, Hillsborough has little public money for a stadium anytime soon. Hillsborough levied a half-cent sales tax to help pay for Raymond James Stadium and other projects, but most of that money is committed through 2026.
Hillsborough's hotel taxes for sports venues are largely pledged through 2035 for Raymond James, Steinbrenner Field and the Forum.
Meanwhile, business and civic circles have buzzed about someone trying to assemble land for a stadium north of Channelside Drive.
The Channelside site consists mainly of two empty plots, one from a proposed condo project that went belly up, the other owned for decades by Tampa's Italiano family. Conagra Corp. property at the north end might also be included.
Combined with street vacations, the property could total 12 to 16 acres, comparable to St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field, where the Rays pitched a waterfront stadium two years ago.
Salvatore Italiano's family owns about 4 1/2 acres
"Actually, I can't talk about that,'' he said, when asked if someone was assembling land for a stadium.
Conagra spokesman Jeff Mochal said the company has no plans to sell. Forty-one Corp, which owns the western section, could not be reached.
Tampa software developer Ryan Neubauer is spokesman for a Web site called BuildIt DowntownTampa.org, which is conducting stadium feasibility studies on the Channelside site as well as the old Central Park Village housing project.
Architects have donated time to the feasibility studies, Neubauer said. The studies are being financed by corporations and individuals that he declined to identify. Nor would he say if he was involved with assembling Channelside land.
"I cannot talk about that publicly,'' Neubauer said.
Of the sites his group is studying, Neubauer said, "It's fair to say'' the Channelside site "is the front-runner at this point.''
Asked about a stadium site near the Forum, Rays vice president Michael Kalt wrote in an e-mail: "We have nothing to say about such speculation.''
It has been Rays policy for some time to decline comment on specific stadium issues.
Though no one has talked to her directly, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, "I have heard more or less through the real estate grapevine that there are owners of property in the channel district who are interested in being a site for the Rays stadium.''
Janet Zink and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.