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Hillsborough officials ponder the what-ifs of the Rays' future

TAMPA — It worked in San Francisco, won the support of officials in Texas and got a lot of attention this week in Tampa.

The approach is called tax-increment financing, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan put it center-stage this week as an idea to help the Tampa Bay Rays make a new home somewhere in the county.

If, that is, they ever leave St. Petersburg, which the mayor there says they won't.

"The Rays aren't going to Tampa or Hillsborough County," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday.

For his part, Hagan has said he wasn't trying to stir things up when he publicly broached the subject Wednesday, but merely wanted to put on the record that there could be a way to help pay for infrastructure a new stadium would need.

Team spokesmen declined to comment on Hagan's comments, but the team has said Tropicana Field doesn't draw enough fans for the Rays to stay through 2027, when its contract with St. Petersburg expires.

Foster chalked up Hagan's suggestion as "Ken being Ken." If folks in Hillsborough County want to keep the team in Tampa Bay, he suggested, more ought to buy tickets for home games.

"Every time it comes up in Hillsborough County, I kind of chuckle, and I believe their heart is in the right place, and they sincerely want to keep this team in the region," Foster said. "I just believe that their focus is in the wrong place. … If anybody in Hillsborough County wants to keep the Rays in the region, then they need to drive over here and support the team in St. Petersburg."

In some Tampa circles, however, the idea of tax-increment financing has been in the mix for at least a year, especially when conversation about the Rays' future takes a what-if turn.

Here's how it works: In Tampa, officials have created eight community redevelopment districts, one each for downtown, the Channel District, Tampa Heights, Central Park, Drew Park, east Tampa and two for Ybor City.

When those districts were created, officials added up the value of all the assessed property inside their boundaries. As new development has taken place, the additional tax revenue that the growth in property value creates goes to improvements in the district.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said his thinking is: Don't interfere with St. Petersburg's relationship with the Rays, but try to keep the team in the region in the event of a "divorce."

Part of that effort, he said, could use tax-increment financing revenues to help pay for infrastructure improvements — roads, water and sewers — that a new stadium would need. In San Francisco, this approach brought in millions for AT&T Park.

"It's just one of what I'm sure will be, if we get to that point, 20 different financing options that will be available," he said. (The money to build the stadium itself, Buckhorn has said, needs to come from private equity and a "significant" contribution from team owners.)

Tax-increment revenues, Buckhorn said, would work best downtown, which is where he would hope to see a ballpark built if it ever came to pass. Additional property tax revenue generated by new hotels, restaurants and stores built nearby could repay infrastructure bonds.

"This really only works in the urban core, I think," he said. Just look at Raymond James Stadium. "You didn't see any economic spinoff as a result of Ray Jay. There's no hotels around it. There's no restaurants that sprung up. There's no retail. In a downtown environment that would be vastly different."

But Buckhorn said this isn't anything new with him.

"It's no different than when I started (running for mayor) last May and talking about it," he said.

Monday, Buckhorn had drinks at a downtown bar with Hagan and Beth Leytham, a public relations consultant who is friends with both, and the three discussed the idea.

"It was purely a social visit," he said. "Inevitably business comes up, but it wasn't designed for that."

Two days later, Hagan brought up tax-increment financing for baseball during a County Commission workshop that was partly about finding ways to pay for needed infrastructure improvements. At the moment, commissioners were talking about using tax-increment financing for other stuff, including road improvements needed around the Florida State Fair.

"I'm very proud to talk about baseball and the importance of the Rays remaining in our community," Hagan said. But he noted that he was talking only about using tax-increment revenues for infrastructure supporting a stadium, and he wasn't necessarily talking about something near the fairgrounds.

Before Hagan floated the idea, the county had not discussed the idea of using tax-increment financing to help develop a stadium, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

At Tampa City Hall, officials say they have not worked on creating a new community redevelopment district or tweaking an existing one for baseball. Nor has Buckhorn heard from any property owner inside or outside the city with an interest in such a project.

At St. Petersburg City Hall, Foster said the conversation about the future of the Rays needs to stay between the city, Pinellas County and team ownership. He said he talked with Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg about four weeks ago.

Neither man changed his position, Foster said, so the status quo remains "until the Rays decide that they are willing to look at sites in St. Petersburg or county properties that abut St. Petersburg."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Hillsborough officials ponder the what-ifs of the Rays' future 06/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 8:00am]

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