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Hillsborough commission chairman pushes for stadium talks with Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has famously said that he's not willing to be the one who causes the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg to split up.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said Tuesday he's tired of being so chivalrous.

"I'm willing to be the boyfriend that causes the divorce," he told the Tampa Bay Times.

Hagan said he told team president Matt Silverman so in January when the Rays visited Sulphur Springs to help build a new playground at Layla's House children's center. Silverman laughed.

But Hagan said he's serious.

"I'm just beyond frustrated at the lack of progress regarding the Rays' long-term future in the Tampa Bay region," Hagan said. "For me, just sitting by idly and hoping issues will work themselves out is counterproductive."

In coming weeks, Hagan said he will ask county attorneys to opine on whether Hillsborough can engage in direct talks with the Rays about their future in the region despite the team's lease at Tropicana Field. If he gets a favorable response, he said he will reach out to the team to figure out what the Rays want and how local government can help.

The Rays have said repeatedly that their current home at the Trop is not suitable for a Major League Baseball franchise. Since a team proposal in 2008 to build a new stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront met opposition, Rays officials have said they want to look at other locations including in Hillsborough.

Two years ago, a business-backed group called the ABC Coalition issued a report that found that a stadium in or near Tampa would generate more fans and corporate backing.

St. Petersburg city officials, particularly Mayor Bill Foster, have steadfastly said the Rays must honor their lease, which binds the team to Tropicana Field until 2027. City Attorney John Wolfe has suggested that any outside government or private groups who meddle in that arrangement could be sued for interfering with that lease.

"Frankly, threats of lawsuits from St. Pete have had a chilling effect on dialogue" about the Rays' future, Hagan said.

Foster said Tuesday that he is surprised by Hagan's comments. They come a month after Foster organized a summit with Buckhorn and top business leaders to discuss how the region can better support the team.

"I would question the timing," Foster said Tuesday. "We'll just chalk it up to Mr. Hagan having a bad day. I know Mr. Hagan well enough that he has my cell phone number and I have his. If I'm ever frustrated with how he's handling something in Hillsborough County, I would tell him directly. I wouldn't tell him through an intermediary."

Even St. Petersburg City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who criticized Foster last year for what she called his inactivity in breaching a communication gap with the team, said she was puzzled by Hagan's critique.

"That's kind of crazy," Curran said Tuesday. "I don't know what his plan is or what his reasonings are for bringing this up now. The best way to keep the team in this area is to keep doing what we're doing."

Michael Kalt, the Rays' senior vice president of development and business affairs, declined to comment.

Summits are fine, Hagan said. But he said he remains convinced that Tropicana Field is not a viable home for the Rays moving forward and that the sooner the issue is tackled, the better.

Two years ago, Hagan caused a stir when he became the first public official in Hillsborough County to stick his finger into St. Petersburg's business with the Rays. He invited the ABC Coalition to present its findings to his board, saying the team is too important of a regional asset for his government to sit by.

Hagan said then that he is fine with a new stadium getting built in Pinellas County — say, in the Carillon area closer to Tampa — and said Tuesday he still feels the same way. And if a stadium were to get built, he would expect it to get built largely with money from the Rays and private backers.

Little has changed in those two years, Hagan said.

With each day that goes by, he said, local government loses leverage in negotiating with the team over a new stadium. The cost to the Rays to break the lease becomes smaller.

"Common sense tells you that it's in everyone's best interest to negotiate earlier than later," Hagan told the Times. "Not to do so is shortsighted and smacks of political calculations."

Hagan says he is "shocked" by the lack of dialogue between the government players and the Rays about the team's future.

Like Hagan, Buckhorn has said keeping the Rays in the region is important, going so far as to tout the merits of a downtown Tampa stadium should it come to that. But he has said repeatedly that he won't be the boyfriend who causes a divorce between the Rays and St. Petersburg.

He did not return messages Tuesday seeking his comment on Hagan's rejoinder.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]

Hillsborough commission chairman pushes for stadium talks with Tampa Bay Rays 03/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 7:03am]
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