TAMPA — It is, for everyone, the $100 million question.
When the city finishes paying off its debt on the Tampa Convention Center in 2015, what should it do with the $14 million a year now committed to those bonds?
If the Tampa Bay Rays ever left Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn knows exactly what he would want.
For more than two years, Buckhorn has talked about taking that downtown redevelopment money and using it to borrow $100 million or more in bonds. That, in turn, could pay for infrastructure improvements needed for a downtown stadium for the Rays.
Not so fast, Tampa City Council members said Thursday.
"There's been a lot of speculation about those available funds," Yvonne Yolie Capin said, noting that she gets media inquiries about the "Rays baseball money." "The perception that it is designated is out there."
But after hearing from cultural and arts institutions, several council members signaled that they want to have in-depth discussions before the city sets any priorities for the money.
Representatives of the Tampa Theatre, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and other groups said they could use the city's help as they make repairs and updates to their city-owned facilities.
"We have old wiring, an old roof and an old facility," said Linda Saul-Sena, who chairs the board of the 88-year-old Tampa Theatre. "It's beautiful. It's fabulous. But it is old. Even as we as a board attempt to raise money to keep the building up, we need you all as our landlord to work in partnership with us."
In response, one of Buckhorn's top aides said it's not like these groups don't get money from the city.
Over the past 10 years, the city has provided about $32 million in financial support to the Straz Center, said Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator.
"There is an annual stipend that each of these organizations has received and will receive in the future," he said.
Mostly, that's for operating expenses, council member Harry Cohen said, not long-term capital needs.
"There's no question that these are things that we have to place a very high priority on as we move into the future," he said. "They're not the only things, but they're certainly things that empirical data shows brings tourists and hotel nights and economic vibrancy to our community. To me, any decisions that we make about how to invest taxpayer funds have to be based on solid evidence that those are good investments."
The council touched only lightly Thursday on the idea of using the downtown tax money for a baseball stadium, though a couple of its members are on the record opposing it.
"Not one dime," Frank Reddick said earlier this week.
But to Buckhorn, the downtown redevelopment revenue is not a tax increase, but rather consists of property taxes already being paid.
Using that money to bring a Rays stadium to the downtown redevelopment district is likely the only way City Hall could participate seriously in the project, he said.
Buckhorn talks of using the redevelopment revenue — officially known as tax-increment financing, or TIF for short — for roads, utilities and infrastructure a stadium would need. Or using it to assemble the land for a stadium. Or spending it on mass transit connections to a new ballpark.
"There's a lot of moving parts, but they all relate to each other," he said. "That's why that TIF money is so important to us, and it's so important that council members, as they have these discussions, don't get backed into a corner by making pronouncements that they can't walk away from.
"We're not going to be looking at expenditures of that TIF money until probably 2016, 2017," Buckhorn said. "The important thing now is to get it extended."
Buckhorn said talks with Hillsborough County officials about continuing the downtown redevelopment district after it expires are going well, but slowly.
One key point: Almost half the revenue in question — about $6.4 million this year — comes from county property taxes collected within the district. Hillsborough officials have expressed an interest in getting a share of that money, which for years they have allowed the city to use on the convention center.
Still, County Commissioner Ken Hagan has said a stadium near the Channel District area, with road improvements and other infrastructure, could justify renewing the existing everything-goes-to-the-city plan as long as it did not lead to new property taxes.
"I think it depends on the project," Buckhorn said. He expects the county could be willing to use 100 percent of the money on major infrastructure investments like a stadium or mass transit. "If it's other things," he said, "they may be inclined to want a percentage."
Maybe, but the council isn't finished with the subject just yet. It scheduled an April 10 workshop on the scope of its authority when it comes to community redevelopment money and a May 8 workshop to discuss priorities for those funds.