Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Following Rays vote, spotlight turns toward Tampa Park Apartments

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays won't announce their preference for a stadium site for months, maybe longer, but the day after the team got a green light to look in Hillsborough County, Mayor Bob Buckhorn couldn't deny he had a favorite site.

It's the Tampa Park Apartments, a nearly 50-year-old apartment complex for 372 low-income families between downtown and Ybor City.

"I don't hide my optimism for that particular site," he said after a City Hall news conference Friday.

Yes, Buckhorn said, the Rays will look elsewhere, including probably Jefferson High School in West Shore, vacant land near Raymond James Stadium and the Florida State Fairgrounds. But the Tampa Park Apartments have a good location and are close to parking garages in both downtown Tampa and Ybor City.

The complex also presents a challenge: It's full of poor, mostly black families, some who have lived there for generations.

So wouldn't evicting them for a new stadium just repeat what happened in St. Petersburg's Gas Plant neighborhood before Tropicana Field was built?

"That would be the biggest issue," Buckhorn conceded.

The 21-acre complex and a neighboring shopping plaza are owned by a nonprofit organization whose board is led by S. Kay Andrews, publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has worked on Rays issues in Hillsborough for six years, has said he has talked with her periodically about the complex.

"Her primary concern was ensuring that her residents were taken care of, and, if that were possible, she would entertain or consider that location," he said.

On Friday, Andrews said she had "no comment at this time."

Under two agreements with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nonprofit couldn't evict residents without advance warning.

That's because tenants in 206 of the 372 apartments get federal Section 8 housing subsidies.

In late 2014, HUD officials told the Times the two agreements expire on Sept. 30, 2017. If the owner wants to opt out of the Section 8 program then, it must give renters one year's notice.

It also must confirm its opt-out decision at least 120 days before the agreements expire. That gives HUD time to arrange assistance for eligible residents.

Fortunately, Buckhorn said, local officials have experience successfully moving residents out of communities — College Hill Homes, Ponce de Leon, Central Park Village and (soon) North Boulevard Homes — where old subsidized housing is to be bulldozed for new mixed-income neighborhoods.

Buckhorn also said a stadium could probably fit on the Tampa Park Apartment property without having to move the neighboring Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

"I think it would be in everyone's best interest to avoid disrupting Booker T. Washington, given its historic nature," he said.

On Friday, Hagan exchanged voicemails with Rays president Brian Auld. That followed a conference call Hagan and top county staff members had Thursday with New York attorney Irwin Raij, the county's outside counsel on stadium issues, about setting up a meeting with the Rays.

Given the Rays' past reluctance to discuss their search during the season, "It's in everyone's best interest that we attempt to compress the timeline and begin discussions as soon as possible," Hagan said. "Candidly, we do not have the luxury of wasting another six or seven years."

Listening to the St. Petersburg council discussion Thursday, Hagan said he was "extremely pleased" to hear Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg say he wants the team to stay in the bay area for generations to come.

The same day, Buckhorn went to a Tampa meeting of chamber of commerce leaders from the United States and Canada. Seeing the head of the Montreal chamber, he delivered a message.

"I told him if he doesn't stay away from our Rays, I was going to have him Tased before he left."

Times staff writer Anthony Cormier contributed to this report.

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