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Hillsborough officials clear: No money to move Rays here

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton warms up before an at-bat at Tropicana Field. The team’s deal with the city of St. Petersburg runs through 2027, but the team cites studies that say it will need a new facility — somewhere — long before then.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton warms up before an at-bat at Tropicana Field. The team’s deal with the city of St. Petersburg runs through 2027, but the team cites studies that say it will need a new facility — somewhere — long before then.

We don't want to stay here, meaning St. Petersburg, but we might want to stay here, meaning the Tampa Bay area. That's essentially what Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said this past week when he talked about his team's need for a new stadium.

"Baseball," he said in a seven-minute statement Monday at 20-year-old Tropicana Field, "will not work long-term in downtown St. Pete." His team, he said, "needs to consider all possible locations — including Tampa and Hillsborough as well."

The Rays can't afford to stay where they are.

But can Hillsborough County afford to take the Rays?

New stadiums are expensive. Almost never do the teams pay the majority of the bill. Taxpayers do. Businesses do. And with anemic municipal budgets, double-digit unemployment, and Hillsborough citizens still helping to pay for the Buccaneers' football stadium, the Lightning's hockey arena and the Yankees' spring training field, do people on the east side of the bay want the Rays enough to pay for their new home?

Because of their contract with St. Petersburg, which runs through 2027, the Rays can't officially talk to anybody in Tampa, or anywhere else for that matter.

But we can.

Sternberg asked the community to at least start to have this conversation. He might not like how it sounds.

• • •

Every politician we talked to in Tampa said versions of some or all of the following: It's too early to be talking about this, we don't even know what specifically the Rays are asking for, and really we shouldn't be talking about this because it's St. Petersburg's deal, and the Rays' deal, and they're the ones with a contract.

And then they all pretty much said …

"Thank you very much, Rays, for telling us to have this conversation," likely mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik said. "Now please go away for a while. Because we've got to deal with more pressing matters.

"There's no public money for this."

"You're talking about trying to keep your police department and your fire department intact," possible mayoral candidate Dick Greco said. "As much as we love baseball, it may be a very, very difficult thing to make happen."

Bob Buckhorn, definite mayoral candidate, posted on his Facebook page after Sternberg's announcement: "If the Rays are going to move, why not a downtown Tampa stadium?" A few days later, though, on the phone, his initial pep was more muted. The chances his would-be taxpayers might pay for part of it?

"Nil," he said, "or something similar to that."

"We're in the middle of a financial crisis at all levels of government," Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "We're not in a time when the government can be laying out hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium."

Even County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a longtime supporter of sports, emphasized that he would not support pursuing a ballpark that would require public money.

Clear enough?

"There is no revenue source from the public," Mayor Pam Iorio said.

But what if the economy improves five or even eight years from now?

"No."

Buckhorn said he couldn't see public financing being a possibility at any point in the next decade.

That's what St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse is hearing.

"The Tampa officials that I've talked to," he said, "say they're in hock for all these other stadiums. I can't imagine they'd be willing to take any more of that type of debt."

Are the Rays hearing something different?

The e-mailed response from Rays vice president and stadium guru Michael Kalt came across like a curt wink:

"We hear only what we read in the newspapers."

Okay. Keep reading.

• • •

"I think we all agree that we want the Rays to be successful," Iorio said, "and I think we all agree that the future is likely a stadium that is brand new and that allows them to succeed, but where this discussion always falls short is …"

Money.

So let's talk about that.

It's an equation that's inherently speculative at this point, but there are some figures we can throw around in a responsible way.

Sternberg said last week in an interview with the Times that he's willing to pitch in somewhere between $50 million and $300 million. Let's split the difference and call it $175 million. A state-of-the-art baseball stadium these days costs about half a billion dollars. The Minnesota Twins' new stadium opened in April and cost $545 million.

That leaves potentially close to $400 million somebody else has to pay.

Sixty years ago, according to Marc Edelman, a professor at Barry University's law school in Orlando who studies stadium financing, there was one publicly funded major league baseball stadium in the country. Now only three teams, the Cubs, the Red Sox and the Dodgers, play in parks that were built without public money. Local governments, he said, now pay on average between 70 and 80 percent of the costs of new baseball stadiums.

Here, though, that might not work.

"The Rays are in a tough spot right now," said sports economist Robert Baade of Lake Forest College in Illinois. "The fact is, there aren't that many metro areas in the U.S., in this day and age, that can give the Rays what they're going to be asking for."

"I don't see how Tampa is going to fork over a lot of money," said Cork Gaines, a blogger who tracks the Rays at raysindex.com.

• • •

"It's going to be up to the business community to lead the charge," said Henry Gonzalez III, the executive vice president of the Bank of Tampa.

Ryan Neubauer is a co-founder of a group called Build It Downtown Tampa.

"We don't believe government is going to have to kick in any massive financing to make this happen," he said. "We're in the process of putting together a recommendation on how to do this without using any public money."

The super-simple preview: a combination of contributions from the team, the business community and "user fees" — fees, in other words, on things like tickets and concessions, placing the onus on those who actually go to games at the stadium rather than just happen to live near it.

Typically, two-thirds of a major league baseball team's season tickets are bought by corporations, not individuals, according to findings of the ABC coalition, the group of business leaders commissioned by St. Petersburg to study the stadium situation. The Rays? One-third.

There's more corporate oomph in Tampa. But is there enough? And not just to fill the seats at the games, but to help fund the building of the structure?

"I believe there would be strong support," Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Rohrlack said.

"The corporate presence exists," said Alan Bomstein, the founder of Clearwater construction firm Creative Contractors and a member of the ABC coalition.

"I don't know if financing gets done today, but three years from now, five years from now, seven years from now — whenever it gets to that point — powers come together and figure out how to do it," he said. "Yes, we're in a s----- economy, and it's a tough thing to even talk about right now, but it's a long-term proposition."

Consider, though, millionaire philanthropist Frank Morsani. He was part of a group 25 years ago that was trying to lure major league baseball to Tampa at the same time a different group was trying to do the same for St. Petersburg. But now?

"With the current economic situation," he said, "I don't think that alternative exists. Not from any of the people I know."

And three years from now? Five? Seven?

"No."

• • •

But those who study these sorts of stadium tussles say this is how they work.

Corporate contributions aside, teams go from government to government, from city to county to state, depending on the area, and hear no, and no, and no, really, no — until, somebody, somewhere, says yes.

"They find the weakness in the opposition," said Neil deMause, the author of the book Field of Schemes, "and just beat people down."

Shovels hit the ground. Skylines start to change. Luxury boxes sprout like daffodils in the spring.

That's how it happened in Minnesota. That's how it happened in Miami. Those are the two latest examples. Half-billion-plus price tags, a decade of opposition from the public — ultimately, though, new stadiums approved.

Every study that has been done or could be done has shown or will show the same thing: The Trop is the wrong stadium in the wrong place. Less than a fifth of the metropolitan area's population lives within a 30-minute drive. That's by far the lowest number in the major leagues. The Rays are near the top of the standings in winning percentage and near the bottom in attendance. It's not a question of fans' apathy or appreciation. It's a question of demographics and economics. The Trop, the ABC coalition wrote in its report, is "nearing the end of its economically useful life."

The owner of the Rays has pit against each other two cities separated by a beautiful body of water, an eight-mile bridge and a history of provincial municipal spats.

Major League Baseball is not rooting for St. Petersburg. Or Tampa. Major League Baseball is rooting for Sternberg and his Rays.

"We support his efforts to get a new ballpark," league spokesman Pat Courtney said.

"It almost boggles my mind," commissioner Bud Selig told reporters back in February, "that there's a debate."

There is. Sternberg asked for it.

"No" isn't how that debate ends. "No" is how it begins.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

What they're saying ...

Mary Mulhern, Tampa City Council member: "I like the Rays. I think they're important to the region. Wherever they are, I'll go to their games. It's certainly too early for any of us to be making any judgments about it or having any input."

Charlie Miranda, Tampa City Council member: "I don't woo anybody to come here. I woo businesses to come here with jobs that pay $15 to $25 an hour."

Christine Burdick, executive director of the Tampa Downtown Partnership: "This is going to take a while to sort out. We don't have a role to play right now."

Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance: "When the opportunity presents itself, and you want to talk, give us a call."

Ed Turanchik, likely Tampa mayoral candidate: "I don't mean to be negative. Sports are fun. The Rays are fun. You want to keep them here. But those are all easy things to say. Figuring out how to do it is going to take time. And it should not be our priority issue. It can't be."

Dick Greco, possible Tampa mayoral candidate: "I think everything's tapped out right now. People are angry, a lot of people are out of work, and the last thing they want to think about is paying another dollar for anything."

Chuck Sykes, CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises: "I think we're really waiting to see how the city of St. Petersburg — how they're going to respond to this challenge."

Hillsborough officials clear: No money to move Rays here 06/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 9:41am]

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