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  1. Rays

While Tampa is counting dollars on Rays stadium, St. Pete is counting the days

The proposed ballpark in Ybor City carries a price tag of nearly $900 million. City and county officials are hopeful that surrounding development fees and taxes will provide enough revenue to fund at least half of the stadium’s cost. (Populous Architects)
Published Nov. 29, 2018

The clock isn't ticking, it's thumping.

Second by second, and dollar by dollar, time is running out for a baseball stadium that, in some ways, is 30 years overdue in Tampa.

That city, along with Hillsborough County, has one month left to convince the Tampa Bay Rays that a viable financing plan exists to pay at least half the cost, and probably more, of a $900 million stadium on the edge of Ybor City. Come Dec. 31, the window of opportunity is supposed to contractually close. Perhaps for seven years. Perhaps for good.

Meanwhile, across the bay, a rival mayor sounds relaxed.

Maybe even amused.

Back in 2015, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman gambled on a deal that would allow the Rays to flirt with folks in Tampa. It cost him some political capital. It might have cost him some re-election votes in 2017. But, at the time, Kriseman thought it was the best strategy to keep the team somewhere in the marketplace. He was also betting that Tampa wouldn't be able to put a financing deal together.

Three years later, his mind hasn't changed.

I asked Kriseman on Tuesday to put a number on Tampa's odds of pulling off the Ybor stadium deal before the deadline. Initially, he pegged it at 20 percent. Later, he agreed that sounded too pessimistic.

He upped it to 25 percent.

"It's a huge (dollar) amount that has to be put together," Kriseman said. "And they're doing it right in the middle of an election for a mayor in Tampa. Is the city of Tampa going to come up with money? Will Hillsborough County be expected to do it on their own? There are a lot of obstacles to this deal."

Related: Times is running out to reach deal on stadium for Rays

Going back to 2015, Kriseman believed St. Pete had the upper hand. Not because of corporate support or demographics or population or drive times. It was the 86 acres where Tropicana Field sat.

A new ballpark could be built on the opposite end of the property, and the original stadium use-agreement gave the Rays the right to share in redevelopment revenues for the rest of the land. That would ease both the site and financing problems that Tampa is still working on three years later.

There's just one drawback, of course. The Rays like Tampa better.

That's indisputable, right? The team pushed for the chance to talk to Tampa, and later decided Ybor City was the best available site. Not to mention, attendance at Tropicana Field has been atrocious.

Kriseman doesn't argue with any of that. If corporate support was the team's main consideration, he agrees Tampa is the better location in 2018. And 2022. And 2024.

But what about 2028 and beyond?

St. Pete's downtown may currently lack businesses and CEOs, but it's a destination. And the population is growing. A new Howard Frankland Bridge and increased mass transportation will only help.

If a Tampa stadium deal is unattainable — or unattractive to the Rays — Kriseman says the team would be wise to reconsider some of the built-in advantages they currently have at the Trop site.

And if not?

"No city wants to lose a major professional sports franchise,'' Kriseman said. "Psychologically, we'd take a hit but economically the city will be fine. The redevelopment of the Trop site will continue. That's a transformative property with or without a stadium on it.''

If nothing else, Kriseman is at ease with the thought that St. Pete has done everything it could to keep the Rays somewhere in the Tampa Bay region. And that may explain why he has taken the unusual step of criticizing Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan on social media in the past week.

A recent 10News WTSP report suggests Hagan refused to publicly release documents that showed the proposed Ybor City stadium site in 2016, while sharing the information ahead of time with developer Darryl Shaw, who had been investing in nearby real estate. Hagan disputes that report and is exporing legal options.

"His actions have muddied the waters, and potentially made it more difficult for a deal to be reached,'' Kriseman said. "Allowing them to purchase property around that site potentially makes it more expensive and puts a deal more at risk. I don't know how you look at that (10News) report and not be bothered. If the commissioner's actions were not criminal, they were certainly unethical."

Related: Ken Hagan asks county legal staff to look into legal action against local TV station

Thirty-two years ago, St. Pete embarked on a speculative venture to build a stadium that undercut Tampa's efforts to land a Major League Baseball team.

This time around, Tampa is trying to close what seems like a much surer bet. Unlike St. Pete's risky decision in the 1980s, Tampa is guaranteed an MLB team if it can get a stadium built.

Bickering between the two cities is not nearly as bitter as it was back then, and that's a good thing. But the stakes are high, and time is quickly running out.

The thumping grows louder.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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