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Hillsborough officials ready to talk if Tampa Bay Rays broaden search for stadium site

Two of Hillsborough County's top elected officials stand ready to talk if the city of St. Petersburg agrees to let the Tampa Bay Rays explore new stadium sites outside of Pinellas County.

But neither Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn nor Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan is eager to reach for the public's checkbook to cover the cost of a new ballpark.

"It's got to be a partnership," Buckhorn said Wednesday when asked what the Rays ought to know going into any discussion with Hillsborough officials.

"Both sides have to have skin in the game. Obviously, the Rays have to have a lot more skin in the game than not," he said. "Our commitment, given this opportunity, would be to put our best minds to the task. I don't know what the deal would look like at the end. I don't know how much it would cost. I don't know where it would be located, but I think the Rays and the region deserve our best efforts."

Likewise, Hagan said the team and the private sector would have to pay for "most, if not all" of any stadium construction.

"We're not going to raise taxes to pay for a stadium," Hagan said.

Still, Hagan and Buckhorn welcomed news that St. Petersburg and the team have been working on an agreement to allow the Rays to look at potential stadium sites in both St. Petersburg and Tampa.

"I'm encouraged to hear the news, and hopefully, this will be sooner rather than later," Hagan said.

Negotiating such an agreement would be a "significant step forward," Buckhorn said. "It's long overdue. If it indeed is accurate, I applaud Mayor (Bill) Foster and the Rays for reaching that common ground. … The status quo can't continue."

If discussions for a new stadium take place in Hillsborough, Hagan and Buckhorn both said they'd form a small group to take the lead.

Buckhorn said he would expect the group to include himself, Hagan, top city development official Bob McDonaugh, County Administrator Mike Merrill, perhaps Tampa Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick and perhaps Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who owns substantial real estate holdings near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"He's the largest landowner in the Channelside area," Buckhorn said. "Clearly, that would be a potential site, so it would be natural that he would be involved in these conversations."

Around downtown, Buckhorn said, "likely sites" include Vinik's land, the current location of the ConAgra Mills plant and the Tampa Park Apartments, next to Nuccio Parkway and south of E Seventh Avenue.

"We'd need to look at all options, and I think the Rays will look at all options," Buckhorn said. "We're not wedded to a particular site."

While Buckhorn and Hagan each said a Tampa Bay Buccaneers-style stadium deal based on a voter-approved tax increase is out of the question, they did say some forms of public participation are possible.

Buckhorn's administration has estimated that it could contribute about $100 million to a downtown stadium once convention center bonds are paid off in 2015.

Hagan said he could see using private money raised through the federal "EB-5" immigration program, which allows foreigners to obtain temporary visas by investing $1 million into a project that will create at least 10 jobs, or $500,000 for 10 jobs in high-unemployment areas.

Hillsborough officials ready to talk if Tampa Bay Rays broaden search for stadium site 07/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 11:48pm]
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