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Tourist tax dollars are big factor in the future of the Rays in Tampa Bay

Baseball fans head into Tropicana Field before the first home game of the 2013 baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Baseball fans head into Tropicana Field before the first home game of the 2013 baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The conversation has been going on for quite some time.

It has included grand ideas and dirt bikes. It has touched on eroding beaches and an emerging aquarium. The discussion over where best to spend an upcoming influx of tourist tax dollars has been all over the Pinellas map.

And somewhere along the way, this question occurred to County Commissioner Charlie Justice:

Is Pinellas County preparing to get out of the business of Major League Baseball?

"It's not like an official decision has been made," Justice said Wednesday. "It just seems like the thought of spending any of that money on a stadium has been pushed to the background. No one has said that; it's more an observation I've made."

And so baseball's love triangle continues in Tampa Bay.

Except the triangle is more of a polygon.

And we've never been sure who loves whom.

Are the Tampa Bay Rays hoping to hook up with Tampa? Does Lightning owner Jeff Vinik love the idea of a baseball stadium on or near his parcels of land in downtown Tampa? Will St. Petersburg fight to keep the Rays? Does Pinellas County have room in its heart — or wallet — for another round of stadium payments?

There are 14 seasons remaining on the use agreement at Tropicana Field, but the clock on stadium decisions has always run a little faster than many have realized.

And this is one of the reasons why.

Pinellas County's payment obligations at Tropicana Field will end in a couple of years, and a handful of groups are lining up to claim the tourism dollars that will suddenly be available. There's a similar situation in Hillsborough, where Tampa Convention Center debts will soon be paid off, and various eyeballs are beginning to focus on that windfall.

So is it fair to say a decision to rededicate the tourism money elsewhere in Pinellas will be the first sign that the Rays will eventually head across the Howard Frankland?

"It's great news that the bonds that helped build Tropicana Field are nearly paid off," Rays president Matt Silverman said. "Decisions about the tourism tax aren't ours to make, but clearly whatever the commissioners decide will have a large impact, for better or worse, on the future of baseball in Pinellas County."

Justice points out that the county could take on some smaller projects for a few years and still get back in the stadium funding business once construction begins down the road.

And St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says Pinellas commissioners probably put stadium questions on the back burner because former Mayor Bill Foster was so emphatic about enforcing the stadium use agreement.

"As far as that revenue stream, if the County Commission and the TDC (Tourist Development Council) are of the opinion there is still an opportunity the Rays will stay here, I'm sure they'll reconsider how they use that money," Kriseman said.

"I don't want to let this thing sit out there and fester much longer. That's not a good idea," he said. "We're at a point where I'm ready to look at getting together with the Rays and talking about where we go from here."

In other words, it's the same old stalemate.

The Rays won't talk about Pinellas until they are allowed to look in Hillsborough. And St. Pete wants to protect the integrity of its use agreement.

It has been a circular argument that has led nowhere. Meanwhile, Vinik can't afford to wait. Neither can the folks who control Tampa's downtown tax district funds. Nor the commissioners with their tax dollars in Pinellas.

One of these days, time will no longer be on our side.

Tourist tax dollars are big factor in the future of the Rays in Tampa Bay 02/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 9:18pm]

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