Hillsborough officials seeking 'creative' ways to pay for a Rays ballpark in Tampa

The view looking towards Tropicana Field on 16th Street looking east on Fifth Ave South in St. Petersburg, Tuesday morning (09/13/16).
The view looking towards Tropicana Field on 16th Street looking east on Fifth Ave South in St. Petersburg, Tuesday morning (09/13/16).
Published Nov. 5, 2016

TAMPA — Reality is setting in for local officials hoping to lure the Tampa Bay Rays to Hillsborough County.

They know the Rays are likely to provide less than half the money needed to build a new stadium in Tampa. And there is little appetite to build a ballpark with taxpayer dollars, they acknowledge, except for taxes paid primarily by tourists, of which there is only so much.

"Whatever the numbers are on both sides, there's going to be a gap," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "And we're going to have to be extremely creative."

The brainstorming is well under way, say officials involved in the stadium discussions, and include these options:

• Creating an entertainment district around the stadium that will take a percentage of every sale within the district.

• Imposing a new tax on rental cars.

• Tacking a surcharge on all game tickets and any item purchased at the ballpark.

• Asking lawmakers in Tallahassee to pitch in up to $2 million a year for 30 years.

• Selling development rights around the new stadium.

Hagan said the Rays have not yet said how much they are willing to contribute toward a stadium. It's likely to depend on the design and location. But the criteria for a new ballpark the team released earlier this year made clear that "the ability to structure a public-private partnership … is critical."

Hillsborough County chief financial officer Bonnie Wise met with the Rays and their financial representatives at Goldman Sachs in New York on Oct. 24. Also there was the law firm Foley & Lardner, hired for their stadium expertise and ties to Major League Baseball. All are expected to meet again soon to start hammering out particulars. Hagan hopes he can bring a site and funding package before the County Commission early in 2017.

The tourist development tax, collected on every dollar spent at hotels, motels, RV parks and the like, is expected to make up a large piece of that package. If Hillsborough surpasses $30 million in tourist taxes collected by the end of the year as expected, commissioners can vote to increase the levy from five cents on each dollar to six cents.

The sixth cent could go to help pay for a Tampa ballpark. Beyond that, it's not clear what will be on the table and some options may not work for every site. But the goal, Hagan said, is not to put the burden on residents.

"We've yet to determine what our financial capacity is, much less what is politically palatable," he said, "and those are likely two distinct positions."

That package is likely to be far more complicated than the competing offer from St. Petersburg.

Pinellas County already unleashed the sixth cent of the tourist tax for a stadium and with significantly more hotels and visitors, it's likely to generate more revenue than in Hillsborough.

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St. Petersburg also has the city-owned Tropicana Field site. Most parcels under consideration in Tampa are privately owned, meaning the team and local governments would have to purchase the land, demolish existing structures, and relocate residents. All of that costs money.

The Rays and St. Petersburg are awaiting the results of a plan to redevelop the existing site, but Mayor Rick Kriseman is confident it will confirm that St. Petersburg is the best home for the Rays.

"I always felt like we had an advantage when it comes to sites and funding," Kriseman said. "It was one of the reasons I was comfortable doing this deal with the Rays (to search for a new park)."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged Hillsborough's pitch will be more complex than St. Petersburg's but he doesn't think that will "drive the decision on the Rays' part."

If the Rays want to stay in the region, population growth in Hillsborough is the best way to drive attendance in the future, he said. An urban stadium that connects downtown and Ybor City and utilizes the existing trolly, for example, should appeal to the Rays front office, he said.

"Sure, it's less complex and probably an easier deal to do (in St. Petersburg)," Buckhorn said. "But it's not just a destination, its about a long-term relationship with the region. It's bigger than just the financing package."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.