Monday, February 19, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough commissioner aims to have Rays stadium plan to discuss within six months

TAMPA — After seven months of meetings with the Tampa Bay Rays, a Hillsborough County commissioner involved in the talks hopes to have a baseball stadium plan for his colleagues to discuss within six months.

The Hillsborough group is scheduled to meet with team executives again in October, Commissioner Ken Hagan told fellow commissioners Wednesday.

So far, the Rays and Hillsborough leaders have discussed 10 sites. At the next meeting, Hagan said, the focus could narrow to two or three sites and a discussion could begin on potential stadium financing, which would vary from one potential location to the next.

"I'm sure this would be the most challenging part of the process to date," Hagan said in an update to the board on discussions with the Rays. The plan he hopes to see take shape would include site location, financing, public uses and the potential for surrounding development.

"Assuming we reach our goal, absolutely nothing will be determined at that time," he said. "It will essentially be a starting point for this board to begin to discuss and debate the plan's merits."

Since the spring, the Rays have met periodically with a Hillsborough working group consisting of Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, plus high-ranking members of the city and county staffs, Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay president Brian Lamb and attorneys from Foley & Lardner, the county's outside law firm on the stadium project.

A couple of commissioners said they've heard concerns about the need for discussions with the Rays being transparent.

It's a delicate balance, said County Attorney Chip Fletcher. In these projects, once the perception takes hold that only one location will work, the price tends to go up a lot, and it's not unheard of for the private parties in a public-private partnership to want the public to take on the extra cost created by that perception.

"I feel like we've got a long way to go before we're even in a place where he could say these are the four or five sites that we think are practical," Fletcher told the commission. "I think we're a long way from saying, this is where we think it's going to go."

Also on Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously to pick Citigroup as the county's investment banker for any Major League Baseball ballpark project.

The selection will not have an impact on the county's current budget, officials say. That's because Citi would be paid out of the money borrowed from the bond market to pay for the upfront costs of building a ballpark. Of course, some public money likely would be used to help repay those bonds.

But, Hagan said before the vote, "This does not assume or lock us into any financial investment, into a ballpark or infrastructure supporting a ballpark."

If necessary, the county says, other firms might be added to the project finance team. Along with Citi, the county's financial adviser got responses or letters of interest from six other firms, including JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Raymond James and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Still, if there's no stadium built in Hillsborough, then neither Citi nor any other firm would be paid anything.

"On Citi's part, this is completely an at-risk deal for them," Commissioner Stacy White said.

Depending on its size, roof and other features, a ballpark could cost an estimated $400 million to $700 million.

The location would determine what money might be available. Build it in one of Tampa's community redevelopment areas — downtown is the richest of these — and property tax revenues that already are earmarked for public projects like roads could be used for stadium infrastructure.

But local officials say that's just one of what could be up to 10 different sources of funding. Along with money from the team, there could be rental car surcharges, some hotel bed taxes, money authorized by the Legislature, ticket user fees and foreign capital available through the federal government's EB-5 visa program.

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