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Rays meet with Tampa, Hillsborough officials on stadium site search

TAMPA — The meeting Friday in downtown Tampa was the political version of baseball's pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training — the first activity in what promises to be an effort spanning many months.

"I'm just as excited on the way out of it as I was on the way in,'' Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld said after outlining the team's plans for its stadium search to a dozen officials and business executives from Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Much of the closed two-hour meeting was spent explaining what the Rays mean when they talk about their ambition to create a "next generation" ballpark.

"We're really looking to tear up the old model," Auld said. A new stadium could be smaller, with fewer seats and different types of seats in a different configuration. It might not have an upper deck, which is typically the most expensive part of a stadium. It might have a retractable roof. Or it might have a fixed roof with moveable walls.

"We could see hosting Little League baseball tournaments, lacrosse tournaments," Auld said. "I like the idea of just opening up the outfield walls and inviting the public in during the winter and just letting it be the coolest park in America. Those things are all on the table. We're trying to figure out ways to do it."

Both sides agreed to meet again, probably monthly.

"We're going to do everything we can to compress the timeline, but the reality is it's not going to happen overnight," Hills­borough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Hagan started agitating for a regional discussion about making sure the Rays stay in the Tampa Bay area in January 2010. But it wasn't until last month that the St. Petersburg City Council agreed to let the team expand its search for potential stadium sites without violating its lease at Tropicana Field.

Friday's meeting, the first between the team and Hillsborough officials, happened a day after Rays officials outlined in broad terms what they're looking for in a home field. Their criteria include:

• Having a site of about 20 acres.

• Being close to a center of business. (This likely would weigh against the Florida State Fairgrounds.)

• Having good accessibility to interstates and — someday — mass transit.

• Having the opportunity to create a come-early-and-stay-late cluster of nearby stores, bars and restaurants.

"It's important for us to have this ballpark be a catalyst for development,'' Rays senior vice president for strategy and development Melanie Lenz said.

Already, both sides are being contacted by people with land or ideas or both.

"Everyone's trying to talk to us," Lenz said. Hagan said he received a couple of emails with site suggestions during the meeting.

But before the Rays sort through the sites, they plan to spend a couple of months having consultants do a deep market analysis of the "regional business centers" in both Tampa and St. Petersburg.

What they learn about those submarkets will inform how big the ballpark is, and what spaces it includes to create social interaction and other design features. The team wants a home field that boosts attendance, increases revenue and flips the balance of season ticket holders from the current mix of 70 percent individual and 30 percent business to the Major League Baseball standard, which is the opposite.

"Corporate support is beyond critical for us,'' Lenz said.

"We need corporate support to make this team work," Auld said. "Determining where and how we can best access that support is going to be a major part of the equation."

The two sides did not talk about potential financing for the ballpark, which could cost $400 million to $700 million, depending on its features, configuration and type of roof.

"It's really hard to talk about financing a project that we don't know what it's going to look like and we don't know where it's going to be," Lenz said.

Whatever the deal, elected officials said local government will not raise taxes as was done to build Raymond James Stadium.

"The Rays are going to have to come to the table with a significant amount of money," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I don't know how much money 'significant' is, but I think it's important that they be partners in this process. Taxpayers cannot bear the entire burden of a stadium."

The financing package could end up with a total of as much as 10 different sources of funding, he said. Depending on the location, potential sources include a share of the property taxes that are already earmarked for community redevelopment in areas like downtown Tampa, rental car surcharges, a portion of local hotel bed taxes, money authorized by the Legislature, foreign investment available through the federal government's EB-5 visa program and ticket user fees.

The Rays have agreed to spend at least six months evaluating sites so that St. Petersburg can make its case that the team's current home, enhanced by future development, is the Rays' best long-term option.

Both Hagan and Buckhorn say their main goal is to keep the Rays in the bay area.

"Selfishly, I admit I would like them to be in Tampa, Hillsborough County, because I believe the demographics suggest it provides the team the best chance to succeed in the long term," Hagan said. "That being said, I want them in Tampa Bay. If they're in Pinellas County, that's fine with me."

Rays meet with Tampa, Hillsborough officials on stadium site search 02/05/16 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2016 7:59pm]
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