Tampa Bay Rays donate money to help pass tax to bring light rail to Hillsborough

It was certainly good news for the political action committee promoting a Hillsborough County transportation tax when it announced this week that it had raised nearly $1 million.

But what to make of the fact that three of the contributions, totalling $50,000, came from 1 Tropicana Drive in St. Petersburg, the mailing address for the Tampa Bay Rays?

Was this yet another sign that the ball club was itching to leave Tropicana Field and move across the bay to Tampa?

"It's something to take note of," said St. Petersburg city attorney John Wolfe. "If Pinellas gets light rail, it could be an effective way to bring people in from Hillsborough. Or, it could be interpreted as, obviously, they are looking at Tampa as a possible site. I don't have a particular interpretation one way or another."

Rays officials said the contributions reflected their concern to improve the local transportation system, including light rail.

"The development of a world-class system is crucial to the long-term economic vitality of our region," said team spokesman Rick Vaughn. "The Rays are proud to be one of hundreds of companies and individuals across the Tampa Bay area throughout Central Florida who are united in this effort."

Only three gave more than the Rays. Sykes Enterprises, Inc. and JHS Capital Holdings gave $100,000 each. TECO gave $80,000. Syniverse Technologies, a telecommunications company, and Raymond James Financial gave $50,000. So did another sports team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The link between sports and rail is no accident. Most modern ballparks are harking back to an earlier era by locating near rail lines. The extra access helps bring more fans to the game, which can fatten box office profits.

In that context, the Rays' contribution shouldn't be viewed as anything but a support of rail, regardless of where the team ends up, said Craig Sher, chairman of the Sembler Corp.

"The Rays are absolutely committed to regional transit," said Sher, who was a member of a community group that reviewed possible sites for a new stadium. "The Pinellas light rail system won't happen unless there's a Hillsborough light rail system. Where you put the new stadium, you'll need to have rail to it."

The political action committee that is raising the money is called Moving Hillsborough Forward. It will launch a promotional campaign to promote a 1-cent sales tax that will be put before voters Nov. 2.

About 43 percent of the money raised by the proposed sales tax would be spent on a light rail system. Another 32 percent would be spent on bus improvements, and 25 percent on roads.

The route of the light rail system is still being determined. Just this week, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit voted unanimously to include Tampa International Airport in its study of the rail line.

Efforts to bring light rail to Pinellas County haven't received money from the Rays. But it's not as far along as Hillsborough's.

Joel Giles of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce recently helped form the group that will promote the Pinellas side of rail. Raising money for it will come later, he said.

Mayor Bill Foster said he wasn't suspicious of the Rays' intentions. The club is contractually obligated to play at the Trop through the 2027 season.

"I have no problem with it," he said. "That component in Hills­borough is critical to moving people to their games here in St. Petersburg. That's a good use of their funding."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays donate money to help pass tax to bring light rail to Hillsborough 07/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 1:16pm]

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