ST. PETERSBURG — Facing a crowd in a St. Petersburg ballroom, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn got the diciest question first.
Is Major League Baseball viable in St. Petersburg?
Amid scattered oohs, Buckhorn ducked that question from St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club ("That's not my fight. There's nothing I can do about it anyway," Buckhorn said.)
But he did repeat his view that there's a way for the Tampa Bay Rays to stay in the region if baseball isn't viable in St. Petersburg.
"If that day comes, and if the decision is that it's a regional asset and we want to keep it, and if the city and the Rays part ways, then I think the best location for that stadium would be in downtown Tampa," Buckhorn said.
He also has a place: the Channel District.
And maybe a way to pay for it: A new stadium could be partly paid for using tax increment financing, he said afterward, although he insisted he wanted private sector financing to cover most of the costs. Tax increment financing raises money by capturing tax revenue from increased property values.
Buckhorn also took note that bonds for the Tampa Convention Center being repaid through a Tax Increment Financing district expire in six years, freeing up opportunity for new uses.
"I think TIF's a viable scenario for any jurisdiction," Buckhorn told reporters, adding that two outside groups studying the issue have requested information on the city's tax increment options.
No one has talked to him about building on a specific location, he said. Buckhorn also said he hadn't been seeking corporate support to raise attendance and involvement with the team.
"I'm not particularly involved. ... Tampa needs to do a better job, I acknowledge that," he said.
He dodged a reporter's question on whether the team would have enjoyed higher attendance at a Tampa stadium during its surprising bid for the playoffs.
"I don't know the answer to that question. I'm actually amazed that they're not doing better with attendance," he said.
While his downtown Tampa idea lowered a few chins, Buckhorn drew applause from a crowd he warmed with quips about raising daughters and moving into the mayor's job.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was seated at Buckhorn's table during the luncheon but left soon afterward. He did not respond to a message seeking comment on how he thought Buckhorn fared.
But St. Petersburg council member Bill Dudley said Buckhorn "looked him in the eyes" and assured him he's not flirting to lure the Rays.
"I think he's a man of honor," Dudley said. "Maybe other people are (trying to lure the Rays), but I don't think he is."
Buckhorn also said the area's communities need to work together, including for the 2012 Republican National Convention in downtown Tampa.
He promised not to tolerate lawbreakers among protesters at the event — "anarchists, they are dangerous, they are violent." But he pledged to create an area to exercise free speech rights.
Where? Largo, he joked as the city's mayor, Pat Gerard, cringed.
"Don't you dare send all those protesters to Largo," Gerard told him afterward.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes