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Hillsborough commissioner pitches Sulphur Springs for Rays stadium

Sulphur Springs “is an alternative that makes sense,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist.
Published Aug. 22, 2013

TAMPA — Public discussion about a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays has tended to focus on locations in or near downtown Tampa, as is the trend for new, urban sporting arenas.

But Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist has a different suggestion, one he said Wednesday would ensure the taxpayers — and not just the Rays — get a return on their investment: the former dog track in Sulphur Springs.

"I'm just saying this is an alternative that makes sense," Crist said. "I think we should put it on the table and look at it."

The former Tampa Greyhound Track, still home to poker at Lucky's Card Room, is just a few miles north of downtown and served by three Interstate 275 exit ramps. It could provide a mass of riders for a north-south commuter rail line linking downtown to Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida.

It's surrounded by acres of parking lots and aged commercial strips on both sides of the interstate, and a stadium could be just the thing to spur nearby investment in what has been a longtime sea of blight, Crist said.

That could also include a USF football stadium, much like what exists between Raymond James Stadium and Steinbrenner Field along N Dale Mabry Highway.

What's more, the site could potentially qualify for grants to clean up polluted parcels and stormwater mitigation credits if those asphalt parking lots were converted to grass to lessen runoff into the Hillsborough River. There might be historic grants available for restoring a former tourist draw in Sulphur Springs and nearby businesses.

Creating a tax-increment financing district to channel new tax money back into the area as it redevelops has the potential to raise significant money because current values are so depressed. And it would lessen the need for broader public financial support.

Crist said he believes such an entertainment complex on the river could spark waterfront redevelopment between the stadium site and downtown, not to mention between the new stadium and USF.

"Putting a stadium on the downtown waterfront takes very sought-after real estate off the tax rolls," Crist said. "Putting it in this location would be taking undervalued real estate with little or no immediate future of development and turns it into a revenue generator."

Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said in an email the team would not comment on Crist's proposal. A USF spokeswoman said the Bulls, who play at Raymond James, aren't in the market for a new home.

"We don't have any current plans to build a stadium," said USF spokeswoman Lara Wade. "We're definitely not looking at any specific locations."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he hasn't talked to Crist about the Sulphur Springs location, but it has been mentioned over the years.

"I don't think anybody has really given it any serious consideration, because the model for Major League Baseball over the last decade has been stadiums in the downtown core," he said. "They want a stadium that's walkable."

But he added, "I think it's fair to assume that if the Rays are allowed to look, that that's a site they would look at, because it certainly is big enough."

Buckhorn has said that if Hills­borough officials get the chance to talk to the Rays — a possibility that first must be negotiated by the Rays and St. Petersburg, where the team now plays at Tropicana Field — those officials would not be wedded to any particular site.

That said, it's no secret Buckhorn likes the idea of a downtown stadium. He has said likely candidates in or near downtown Tampa include land near the Tampa Bay Times Forum controlled by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik; the current location of the ConAgra Mills flour plant; and the Tampa Park Apartments, next to Nuccio Parkway and south of E Seventh Avenue.

And there could be another option east of downtown.

A company owned by Dania Beach real estate executive Phil Glassman recently finished assembling nearly 20 acres on Adamo Drive just east of Ikea and is looking for a buyer.

The asking price is $15 million, and the thinking is that the buyer probably will be a big-box retailer such as Home Depot, Costco or Sam's Club, said Bob Dikman, whose commercial real estate company is marketing the property. Walmart has been looking in that area for years, he said.

At 20 acres, the property is big enough for a ballpark. A reporter asked whether Glassman's company is thinking about a stadium deal, too.

"That's pretty interesting," Dikman said. "I probably ought to talk to Mayor Bob about that."

Buckhorn said nobody has proposed that property before, but while the land is big enough for a stadium, parking could get costly.

Still, one thing is certain: There will be more ideas.

"Anybody with a city block and a cell phone is going to try to put their property in play," Buckhorn said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

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