TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn raised his city's profile in the discussion about the future of the Tampa Bay Rays by saying in 2011 that City Hall could, in theory, contribute up to $100 million toward a new ballpark in downtown Tampa.
Three years later, Tampa still expects to have millions in cash on hand after it pays off its convention center bonds. But it also has other potential contenders emerging for that money.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is working on a master plan for 24 acres he's bought near Amalie Arena in the Channel District, is expected to be one of them, Buckhorn said.
The University of South Florida, exploring the idea of moving its medical school downtown, could be another.
Buckhorn made clear he still likes the idea of a downtown ballpark, but the city has not committed its downtown development money to that project.
"I'm not going to spend seven years waiting for a stadium deal when we have an attractive option in hand," Buckhorn said in an interview at City Hall. "We're going to try to be as helpful as we can to make these things happen."
Ever optimistic, Buckhorn said building a stadium wouldn't necessarily preclude bringing USF's medical school downtown, or vice versa. But he acknowledged a first-come, first-served dynamic could come into play.
"My choice, certainly in the short term, is to support and to encourage that which is real," Buckhorn said. "Vinik's development will be real. Hopefully, the med school will be real. The Rays situation will play itself out over the next five, six years. I could be gone by the time it gets resolved. Probably will be."
Asked which he thought would give downtown the bigger economic boost — stadium or medical school — Buckhorn didn't hesitate.
"In the long run, I think the med school," he said. "That's not to say we won't pursue a stadium given the opportunity with equal vigor."
But unlike a stadium, which would sit empty most days, a medical school would create "a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week environment that would attract thousands of young professionals" who would fill up apartment towers, shop and dine out downtown, Buckhorn said.
In cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, urban universities like Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon "drive the economy in the downtown area," he said.
This year, the Legislature appropriated $5 million to help USF plan for a new medical school. Medical school dean Dr. Charles Lockwood told the Tampa Bay Times last month that a downtown campus is an idea being explored. While the university's work is in the early stages, Buckhorn said he brings up downtown every time he talks to USF president Judy Genshaft.
Buckhorn also has talked to Vinik's development team about the idea of bringing the medical school to some of his 24 acres. That said, he concedes that Vinik's property might not be the best fit for USF Health and that it might make more sense for the medical school to be on other property near its Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation on S Franklin Street.
The university is working on plans for two new facilities, the Morsani College of Medicine building and the USF Health Heart Institute. Its decision on the best location for each will be based on its "mission to advance education, research, patient care and economic development in the Tampa Bay region," USF Health spokeswoman Lisa Greene said in an email.
Buckhorn said he has not seen Vinik's master plan, which Vinik has said he plans to make public soon, but he expects that it will include office projects.
Not only that, he said that based on conversations with Vinik's team, city officials expect Vinik to look for the city to spend some of its downtown development funds on infrastructure upgrades that would benefit his development.
"We're anticipating that the ask will be there, and that it's an appropriate expenditure," Buckhorn said.
Vinik spokesman Bill Wickett declined to comment on whether the master plan could include space for USF Health, or whether Vinik will seek downtown development funds for his project.
In any scenario, a bond issue tied to Tampa's downtown development funds wouldn't cover more than perhaps a fifth of a new baseball stadium's cost, projected at $550 million or more, but it would help.
That's why, in 2011, a Chamber of Commerce task force studying stadium financing asked the city how much it might be able to contribute. The response, based on the expected availability of the downtown development funds, was $90 million to $100 million.
It also came with a caveat: City officials didn't say they would spend that money on a stadium, only that they could.
The $100 million presumably would be available in the form of a 20-year bond issue, city officials said. The city could pay the bonds off using property taxes generated by new development inside Tampa's community redevelopment district for 870 acres downtown.
Currently, that money is being used to retire the city's debt from building the Tampa Convention Center. But that debt is scheduled to paid off in October 2015.
Tampa now receives all of the money — known as tax-increment financing funds — generated within the downtown community redevelopment area. In 2015, that is expected to total $15 million, of which $13.5 million is budgeted toward paying off the convention center bonds.
At the same time, the redevelopment area is scheduled to expire soon, so city officials are negotiating its renewal with Hillsborough County officials.
At this point, it hasn't been decided whether the current split of tax-increment revenue — 100 percent for the city, zero for the county — will change. But Buckhorn said that under the worst case for the city, he expects that the city would still get half.
That means something near $7.5 million to start, though Buckhorn expects that as downtown continues to grow the city's share would soon be back up toward $15 million. Still, sharing the downtown tax-increment revenue with the county could mean a bond issue would be smaller.
The tax-increment money can be used for downtown infrastructure improvements — such as realigning the street grid, expanding water or sewer capacity, putting in sidewalks, streetlights or other amenities.
While Buckhorn's staff would make recommendations and negotiate agreements, the Tampa City Council, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, decides how the tax-increment revenue is spent.
Meanwhile, an agreement could be near to allow the Rays to look at potential sites in Hillsborough County, followed by further discussions with St. Petersburg officials, the Tampa Bay Times reported Sept. 3.
On Friday, the Rays declined to comment on Buckhorn's remarks, instead referring to principal owner Stuart Sternberg's comments this week that while nothing is imminent with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, "I'd like to think once the season is over we can have more substantive conversations."
Beyond what he's read, Buckhorn said he hasn't heard anything from Kriseman or anyone else about the prospect of talking to the Rays.
But he expects that the more development occurs in or near the Channel District, the less space will be left for a stadium.
That's not to say it might not fit somewhere else in or near downtown, Buckhorn said.
"I think Major League Baseball likes the urban core," he said. "I prefer the urban core. Whether or not we can find a site that's doable remains to be seen. But I think that is where we ought to start, if given the opportunity. If we can't, then we'll go to Plan B, whatever Plan B is."
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times