TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County Commission heard a familiar pitch Wednesday that the Tampa Bay Rays need to leave Tropicana Field, a 31-year-old software developer announced that he and an "investment group" hope to assemble land for a new stadium in downtown Tampa.
Ryan Neubauer, founder and spokesman for the website BuildItDowntownTampa.org, announced in a news release that what began last year as an Internet petition campaign has now evolved into a more serious land-acquisition effort.
Neubauer said his investment group, which came together within the past few weeks, is made up of seven people who are looking at two possible stadium sites east of the downtown core. He declined to identify either investors or sites until "all the land is locked up" with options.
Construction financing would be largely private, he said, without providing detail.
Though the Rays have a contract with St. Petersburg to play at the Trop through 2027, BuildItDowntownTampa is now the third Hillsborough group publicly identified as having designs on the team if the Rays lobby for a move.
Former Mayor Dick Greco is working with Virginia developers on a massive renovation of the Florida State Fairgrounds that could include a stadium.
The St. Petersburg Times reported in February that Tampa real estate broker Claire Clements had an artist's rendering of a stadium project in the Channel District and that landowners had received option offers.
Clements declined to elaborate on her plans Wednesday, but said she is not one of the BuildItDowntownTampa investors.
The BuildItDowntownTampa group may have signaled its intentions a few months ago when its website identified two likely stadium sites: the same Channel District site Clements was pitching and land farther north toward the old Central Park Village apartments.
Corporations were kicking in money for feasibility studies and architects were donating time, Neubauer said at the time. Maps showing the two sites have since been removed from the website.
St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said the city might sue anyone who talks to the Rays about specific stadium sites. That would interfere with the city's Trop contract, Wolfe said.
The Rays have recently declined to comment about stadium issues, saying they want to concentrate on winning the American League championship. But vice president Michael Kalt broke that mantra Wednesday, saying the team had not talked to anyone assembling land — not even through intermediaries.
Neubauer also emphasized that no one from his group had talked to the Rays — yet.
"We're hoping the lines of communication with the team can open soon so that everyone that wants to see this team remain in the bay area can take part in the discussion," he said.
The Rays kicked off the stadium debate in 2008 with a proposal to build a new venue on St. Petersburg's waterfront. The Trop couldn't support a consistently competitive team, they said.
That push died, but a civic group that formed in its wake — called the ABC Coalition — has since recommended that taxpayers underwrite a new stadium when the economy improves. The Pinellas Gateway area, West Tampa or downtown Tampa are the most centrally located sites, the coalition says.
However, any Hillsborough stadium site faces huge political and economic hurdles.
Besides St. Petersburg's threat to sue, Tampa and Hillsborough officials say they can't afford a new stadium.
The Hillsborough County Commission reiterated that Wednesday when the ABC Coalition presented its report.
The commission instructed its staff to make sure the county would "be at the table" if the Rays make it clear they intend to leave St. Petersburg. But there was no hint of ponying up cash.
"With the budget issues we are dealing with," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, "I don't want to, in any way, consider building another stadium when we are having defining conversations about government and what it provides."
A retractable-roof stadium, almost a necessity in Florida's rain and humidity, would cost at least $500 million.
Neubauer said his group hopes for private financing.
"We are going to try to put together a recommendation with next to no public financing," he said.
The BuildItDowntownTampa website was created in July and asked people to sign a petition.
It was a casual idea among friends, said Neubauer, who lives with his wife and two children in a modest Ybor City home.
"We feared that the lack of discussion (about a Tampa site) would translate into noninterest in the team's eyes. That would ultimately result in the team moving out of the area," Neubauer said. "We thought we could provide a voice and direction to what we thought was best. It started as a grass roots movement in the purest sense."
Gradually, others approached with ideas and contributions. Then, in just the past few weeks, the investor group "coalesced," he said.
Times staff writers Bill Varian and Jared Leone contributed to this report.