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Rays reject Ybor City stadium, remain committed to Tampa Bay

Published Dec. 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday that the plan to build a stadium in Ybor City is no longer viable. Still, the team remains committed to looking for a new home in the Tampa Bay area — for now.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough official to Rays: Your move on Ybor stadium deal

Sternberg said the lack of details in building the proposed $892 million stadium in Ybor City failed to give the team the certainty it needed to commit by the end of the year to proceed with the project.

And he said the team does not see enough progress to ask St. Petersburg for an extension on its Dec. 31 deadline to negotiate a new ballpark site outside Pinellas.

That decision was backed by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who in a letter sent Tuesday said the proposed framework for a deal put together by Hillsborough County lacked specifics such as commitments for financing and timetables for finalizing a deal and starting construction.

"While the momentum and progress are real," Sternberg said at baseball's winter meetings in Las Vegas, "we are not close at all to a workable framework."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, one of the leaders spearheading efforts to bring the Rays to Tampa, said he was not surprised by the announcement. It was clear in recent weeks that the two sides would not reach an agreement by the end of this year, he said.

But he does not believe that the Rays are ready to give up on Ybor. The team picked the historic neighborhood after a lengthy search because it still believes that is the best place in Tampa Bay for a ballpark. Hagan also said county officials will continue to flesh out details of a financing package.

But a major stumbling block remains, he said. The financing deal proposed by the county requires the team to pay half of the cost of the ballpark up to a maximum of $475 million.

The team, though, has yet to say whether it is willing to do so.

"I agree with Mr. Sternberg saying there's not enough details in the agreement to request an extension at this point," Hagan said. "At the same time, I think we would be extremely naïve not to believe there is an element of posturing on the team's part as well."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the team's unwillingness to reveal how much it would contribute meant the county was effectively negotiating with itself.

"There is no more money," Buckhorn said. "If they're not willing to do half, tell us now and we'll walk away and remain friends."

Those aren't the only major issues dividing the two sides:

The county's financing plan relies on up-front funding from investors willing to put their cash into a federally-designated Opportunity Zone that lets them delay paying capital gains taxes. After 10 years, the investor would have to be paid off using revenues generated by development expected to spring up around the ballpark.

But the Rays want to stay out of the real estate business, Buckhorn said.

"They were dumping all that obligation on the public sector which was a very risky prospect for any public entity to assume," he said.

Sternberg's statements on the deal come after months of behind the scenes work by officials to try and put together proposal. That process wasn't helped by the Internal Revenue Service, which did not release rules about opportunity zones until September.

Irwin Raij, an attorney working on the stadium deal on behalf of the Tampa Sports Authority, last week wrote to Manfred and Sternberg outlining the county's plan. It includes revenue from a projected 4 million square feet of development around the Ybor City site, a number that came from an unreleased real estate study commissioned by the team. Downtown Tampa has about 6.1 million square feet.

Manfred was clearly unimpressed. In his response, he wrote that he was "puzzled by the decision to inject me publicly in the process" with the deadline looming.

"Considering the lack of specifics included in your letter and the very short time frame that exists, I am not sure of what assistance I can be at this juncture," he wrote. He did, however, reiterate his support for the project and his wish to help all involved parties find a way to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay region.

Sternberg, who had previously floated a $150 million contribution and then said he would pay more but not how much, said Monday they didn't get enough specifics (such as season ticket commitments or naming rights) on the Ybor deal to know what was realistic for them to pay.

"I think if we had gotten further along with that we would have been able to answer that question better," Sternberg said.

So what happens next? That is unclear.

Sternberg said he remained committed to finding a new home in the Tampa Bay area and has no plans to try to leave the area before the end of the team's 2027 agreement with St. Petersburg to play at Tropicana Field.

But he also acknowledged that, at some point, they have to start thinking about where the Rays will play in 2028, when they potentially could relocate with permission from MLB. New stadium construction requires four-five years lead time.

"So we've got a couple of years to figure it out," Sternberg said. " We've got to know where the 2028 season will definitively be played over the next few years. We had a long window to get to that point, meaning 15 years, and that's elapsed now we've only got a few years left."

Sternberg and team president Brian Auld said they had no specific stadium site in mind or next step for the process. But they are open to input from others, noting they have had cooperation on both sides of the bay.

"While today is certainly disappointing and represents a bit of a setback we have great partners on both side of the bay that have shown a willingness and eagerness to get this resolved," Auld said. "And both sides have a lot to gain from getting this resolved regardless where the ultimate location is."

The Rays' failure to reach an agreement with Hillsborough also complicates the future of the Trop.

St. Petersburg officials have developed master plans for the 86 acre site both with and without a ballpark.

But it's unclear if the Rays' announcement means the city has to wait even longer before it can redevelop the Trop, considered critical to the future of the burgeoning Edge District.

St. Peterburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the agreement allowing the team to look for a new home was limited to three years so the city would have some certainty about the future of the Trop. The city does not expect to wait another nine years to implement those master plans.

Kriseman said he has long maintained that the Trop site is the best place for a new baseball stadium. He expects Rays officials will reach out to him when they return from Las Vegas.

"The (team) owner did indicate its his intention and desire to remain in the Tampa Bay area," Kriseman said. "If that means St. Pete, that's something we have to look at."

Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Josh Solomon contributed to this story. Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times

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