Saturday, July 21, 2018
Politics

Cost, size weigh against ConAgra land in downtown Tampa as Rays stadium site

TAMPA — As the focus intensifies on the Tampa Park Apartments as a potential Hillsborough stadium site for the Tampa Bay Rays, another once-much-talked-about site, the ConAgra flour mill, may be poised for a fade-out.

The ConAgra mill does offer an appealing downtown Tampa location. And because it's in downtown's community redevelopment area, a ballpark there could be eligible for a portion of property taxes that are set aside for road and infrastructure projects to support new development.

But a couple of factors weigh against it.

First, the company really wants to stay in this area. Built before World War II, when Tampa's waterfront was all heavy industry, wharves and warehouses, the mill still processes 1.5 million pounds of flour a day for bakeries across Florida, the Southeast and the Caribbean.

"We are excited about Tampa Bay and Central Florida's growth," Mary Ann Strombitski, a spokeswoman for Ardent Mills, a joint venture of ConAgra Foods and two other companies, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "Our company continues to be excited about our long-term business prospects there."

And while Ardent Mills confirmed it is open to discussion, it doesn't talk like it's looking to initiate any conversation.

Asked if the company would be willing to talk to local officials and others about moving its mill to another location in the bay area, Strombitski said, "if it is in the best interest of our business and the Tampa Bay area, we're willing to listen."

It's not clear that local officials will make that approach.

At County Center, where officials are expected to exert the most control over local public sources of possible stadium funding, Commissioner Ken Hagan says cost would be a big issue.

"I'm sure it will be on the table, but it's probably one of the less likely sites that will be considered," he said Monday. Historically, he said, ConAgra showed little willingness to consider a move. But several years ago, several of the company's top executives flew to Tampa for meetings with Hagan and Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

In any location, company executives said, the plan would need rail access and, ideally, access to the water. Local officials showed them several sites around the port. But the sense that local officials got was that the company would expect the community to pay for the move, which Hagan said would make an already challenging project even more expensive.

At City Hall, Buckhorn shows no enthusiasm for the ConAgra site.

"There are too many other issues with that ConAgra site, including the fact that we would have to rebuild and replicate that plant somewhere else, which is probably $80 million in addition to the cost of the stadium," he said.

Size also is an issue.

ConAgra owns about 3.4 acres at 110 S Nebraska Ave., south and east of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. But CSX has railroad tracks serving the mill nearby. In 2003, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority bought the land under those tracks to expand N Meridian Avenue and build an on-ramp leading to its reversible express lanes.

Under an agreement with CSX, if the flour mill goes away, so would the railroad tracks. That would make another 6.5 acres just east of the mill available.

Still, officials have said a stadium project at the ConAgra site would need at least some of the land controlled by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his partners at Cascade Investment. They, however, have planned their $2 billion redevelopment project with no acreage for a stadium.

Under an agreement approved last week by the St. Petersburg City Council, the Rays have 60 days to put in writing the process the team will use to evaluate prospective stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough. It also has agreed to take at least six months to do those evaluations. That way, St. Petersburg officials have time to make the case that the current site of Tropicana Field, enhanced by new development, is the best long-term location.

In Hillsborough, potential sites include Jefferson High School in West Shore, vacant land near Raymond James Stadium, waterfront land owned by Port Tampa Bay, the former greyhound track on Interstate 275 and the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The Tampa Park Apartments has 21 acres between downtown and Ybor City. The property also is close to three city parking garages — on E Twiggs Street, on Palm Avenue and near Centro Ybor — that have a combined 3,330 parking spaces. With parking garages costing up to $15,000 per space to build, officials would hope that using the existing city garages would help reduce project costs.

But, as Buckhorn acknowledged last week, putting a stadium at the Tampa Park Apartments site also would mean moving 372 low-income families. They couldn't be moved before late 2017 and federal rules would require that they receive a year's notice of any intent by the complex's nonprofit owner to sell.

"None of these deals are uncomplicated," Buckhorn said. "There's going to be issues associated with each of the sites."

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] Follow @Danielson_Times

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