TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said Friday that they're prepared to start discussions with the Tampa Bay Rays to explore potential stadium sites in Hillsborough County.
"There is no master plan," Buckhorn said after meeting with Hagan for about an hour at Tampa City Hall. "There is no formal committee in place. This is the first step in a very, very, very long journey. This will be complicated. This will be expensive. But this is worth the effort."
And there's another thing: As long as St. Petersburg officials are still negotiating terms to allow the Rays to expand their stadium search, Buckhorn and Hagan will mostly be talking to each other.
"Until that ink is dry on that agreement, there's really nothing in Hillsborough that we can do other than prepare," Buckhorn said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board this week that he has reluctantly concluded that attendance at Tropicana Field is so poor that the Rays should be able to look at stadium sites in Hillsborough County. That, he said, might be the only way to keep them in the region.
So St. Petersburg officials and the Rays have been working on an agreement to allow the team to expand its search. So far, there's no indication when that might be ready for the St. Petersburg City Council to consider.
Foster says the agreement could establish ground rules for the search, reinforce the team's contractual obligation to play at the Trop through 2027 and define what the team would pay to look for a site in Hillsborough.
Hagan and Buckhorn said they appreciate Foster's decision, which Buckhorn described as "a major step in the right direction."
"I know for Mayor Foster it involved an awful lot of thought, and it is for St. Petersburg an emotional decision," he said. "But the reality of it is that it's not working where it is currently. If we are going to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay area, which is absolutely what the chairman and I are committed to doing, there has to be a break in the logjam."
They said they think Hillsborough offers the team better demographics, more corporations and a shorter drive for more fans.
"The numbers are here," Hagan said, citing a 2010 study by the local ABC Coalition concluding that two of the three best sites for a new Rays stadium from a demographic perspective were in Tampa. "It's not just a gut instinct or speculating."
Buckhorn also noted that the model for Major League Baseball over the past decade seems to be building a stadium in the urban core. Having Ybor City and the Riverwalk nearby also could help.
"We can make a pretty compelling case that the Rays don't need to look elsewhere in America, that they can find a home here in the Tampa Bay area that works with a business model that's successful," he said.
Buckhorn said a new stadium with a retractable roof could cost $600 million to $650 million.
While there's no financing plan in place, he and Hagan have a few ideas. First, they are ruling out raising sales taxes to pay for the facility.
Also, "the Rays are going to have to come to the table with a significant sum of money for this to work," Buckhorn said. He didn't say what that was, though he mentioned the Rays' previous offer in 2008 to help pay for a waterfront stadium in St. Petersburg. (At that time, the team talked about kicking in one-third of the cost of a $450 million stadium.)
"I will look for as much as I can," he said.
Beyond that, Tampa could contribute an estimated $100 million to a downtown stadium site. That money would come from community redevelopment area revenues that now are paying off bonds for the Tampa Convention Center. That debt is scheduled to be retired in 2015.
Hagan also said $100 million to $150 million might be raised through the federal EB-5 program, which allows wealthy foreigners to obtain temporary visas and permanent residency by investing $500,000 to $1 million in job-creating projects.
"You've got naming rights, parking revenues, development opportunities," Hagan said. "So working creatively at this, I believe, Mayor Buckhorn believes, that we can get to the magic number."
If the Rays do get a chance to look in Hillsborough, "they need to know that we will put our best and brightest to the task of finding a way to make this work," Buckhorn said.
"They also need to understand that we're a mid-sized market supporting three major league franchises, that we're coming out of a recession, that the local jurisdictions have limited ability to participate in the financing of a stadium (and) that there will never be another arrangement like Raymond James Stadium, where the taxpayers bore the entire burden," he said. "It's going to be complicated, and we need them and/or Major League Baseball to be our partners."