The Tampa Bay Rays took a big step Thursday toward answering the $450-million question, and the best part may well be the missing ingredient. The team would not ask for a single dollar of property taxes to help build a downtown waterfront stadium.
The public money the Rays want instead is the roughly $11-million in county resort and city sales taxes that already are pledged each year toward the existing Tropicana Field. That debt is to be paid off in 2016, and the Rays want to keep the money flowing until at least 2041. They also want to share with the city game-related parking revenues near the new stadium and the sale proceeds from Tropicana.
The plan is still sketchy as it relates to the parking revenues and counts on the Tropicana developer to write an up-front $70-million check for the land, which may or may not be negotiable. That said, the virtue is that the plan makes a clean break from property taxes.
If the Tropicana's 86 acres are sold, the land would immediately become taxable. Those property taxes were once considered the key to paying off new stadium debt, but their growth over the years would be unpredictable at best. By eliminating so-called tax increment bonds, the Rays eliminate uncertainty and allow themselves to fairly describe those new property taxes as a windfall for schools and city and county governments. Right now, those governments receive nothing.
The Rays are putting $150-million of their own money into the stadium and argue that the public's contribution is less than half the project. That percentage may be a stretch, given that it doesn't account for the public's contribution of the prime waterfront Al Lang Field property. But the problem is that the local market for baseball is not prosperous enough for taxpayers to reasonably expect the team to foot the entire bill on its own.
The financial reality is that the city's leverage will only diminish with each passing year, as the team approaches the 2027 expiration of its current Tropicana lease. If the region wants to keep Major League Baseball, the sooner it makes a commitment, the better deal it might get. Under the Rays' plan, baseball could be guaranteed through 2046.
The financing plan released on Thursday does in large measure square with the Rays' original commitment to avoid any tax increases or new taxes. But these numbers are also merely the starting point for negotiations with Mayor Rick Baker and County Administrator Fred Marquis. If the Rays want voters to bless this deal, they will have to show that the split is fair and the numbers are genuine. They took a major step in that direction on Thursday.