Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Joe Henderson: New stadium talk is fun until it turns to who will pay

The site that planners appear to have chosen as a potential new home for the Tampa Bay Rays is as close to perfect as exists today.

As Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times reported, local officials are working to put together enough land to build a ballpark south of Nuccio Parkway and within a short stroll of Ybor City. The Rays haven't commented publicly about this development, but — just spit-balling here — my guess is they would be all giddy with that location.

If you think finding the right spot was hard though, welcome to the main event. If the Rays say yes, and if the land can be assembled, and if officials can get enough people behind the idea, they still have to figure a way to pay for this.

Translation: A new stadium is still years away.

Start with the fact County Administrator Mike Merrill told Contorno, "The only way that people who live here pay is by attending a game or going to bars and restaurants around the stadium or have a home or business in that district."

As a taxpayer in Hillsborough County, I hope Merrill is right. However, I couldn't help but notice the story reported the county has been studying the deal worked out between the Atlanta Braves and Cobb County, Ga., to finance the team's new $672 million SunTrust Stadium.

Let's explore that.

Cobb borrowed $397 million in bonds to build the Braves stadium, and also agreed to pay $35 million in stadium maintenance for the 30-year life of the lease. Oh, and there also are transportation and road improvements for taxpayers to swallow.

The Braves? Their "contribution" according to reports is about $230 million. How sweet of them to "contribute" to such a worthy cause as themselves.

Cobb County also diverted some of its property tax money to secure financing and increased the millage rate on local businesses and housing complexes.

They did this without a voter referendum.

Hillsborough County is studying this?

Study away guys, and then do just the opposite.

Mind you, I am not in the camp that says pro franchises aren't important to the community. On the contrary, consider how fired up fans are here for the upcoming Buccaneers season. The Lightning have become one of the best-run and entertaining organizations in pro sports.

I think, given the right location — and this site checks all the boxes for that — the Rays could enjoy the same success.

With people and businesses moving steadily into Tampa's downtown, I think the Rays' season-ticket base would spike considerably. The proximity to Ybor is appealing for pre- and post-game merriment, and Jeff Vinik's 53-acre, $3 billion Water Street Tampa project would be just around the corner.

For aesthetics, a stadium in that location would offer the iconic downtown backdrop that just looks so cool, at least when the stadium roof is open. It might not even make sense to put a retractable roof on a new stadium, given that it probably would open only a dozen nights a year or so.

But how do you pay for something like this?

You'll probably hear a lot of talk about creating a special-taxing district in and around a new stadium, to help with financing. That's fine, even though it won't generate nearly enough money. Tourist taxes? The fight for that money will be bloody if backers try to divert millions more to a stadium.

Every time I pull at these threads, it keeps coming back to fact Major League Baseball generated about $10 billion in 2016 and the cash keeps coming in.

What that means is we can dream about an Ybor stadium all we want, but until we see what the Rays are willing to pay, a dream is all it will be.

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