Hillsborough commissioner seeks to pave the way for ballpark talks with Rays

Ken Hagan wants the county to be “ready to hit the ground running” if the Rays call.
Ken Hagan wants the county to be “ready to hit the ground running” if the Rays call.
Published Sept. 28, 2014

TAMPA — While nothing has changed in the long-running stalemate between the Tampa Bay Rays and the city of St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan wants plans in place when the impasse ends.

At Wednesday's commission meeting, Hagan will ask to designate the Tampa Sports Authority to lead discussions with the Rays about a new stadium — if the Rays get permission to look at sites outside Pinellas County.

If other commissioners approve, Hagan said Saturday, he would then set up a working committee to focus on finding a location for a Rays ballpark in Hillsborough, and the money to pay for it. The committee ideally would include Hagan, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority CEO Eric Hart, and a prominent member of the private sector, Hagan said.

It's not surprising that any discussion of a new baseball stadium in Hillsborough would involve the Tampa Sports Authority. The agency helped build and manage the county's two professional sports venues — Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena. While some may criticize Hagan's proposal as pre-emptive, he said he feels a deal between St. Petersburg and the Rays is imminent, and he wants to be "ready to hit the ground running" if the team is allowed to look for a new home.

"It's not a matter of if the Rays relocate, it's when and where," Hagan said.

Neither Buckhorn nor St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman returned calls for comment Saturday.

Hagan, who has long championed the idea of a baseball stadium in Hillsborough, has praised Kriseman for having "vision" and a "different perspective" than his predecessor, former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

While Kriseman blasted Foster's handling of the Rays stadium saga as he ran for mayor last year, nothing has changed since Kriseman took office in January. The Rays want to look outside Pinellas County for a new home and St. Petersburg won't allow it. The Rays are contractually tied to Tropicana Field through 2027.

Meanwhile, things are changing in Hillsborough that could be prompting Hagan's urgency. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has expanded his real estate holdings in Tampa to 24 acres, and is working on plans to build a massive entertainment, office, residential and retail district near Amalie Arena.

Those plans do not include a baseball stadium. There has been speculation Vinik is cool to the idea of another professional sports stadium in Tampa.

Saturday morning, Vinik was at Amalie Arena for Fan Fest, a Lightning promotional event. In a radio interview on 620 WDAE, Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones asked Vinik for his thoughts on a baseball stadium in downtown Tampa.

"A new ballpark … has been discussed since long before I got here five years ago," Vinik said. "We've got a lot on our plate, and we have vision here on and off the ice to do hopefully really good things."

Asked after the radio interview if he was opposed to a baseball stadium in Tampa, Vinik declined to answer the question, or any others.

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Hagan said he doesn't believe Vinik's plans are a hurdle to a Rays stadium in Hillsborough. However, he acknowledged that a sense of urgency has been created by the prospect that Vinik's developments and others could vie for city money that might otherwise help fund a baseball stadium.

"There's going to come a point in time here where Major League Baseball and the Rays say enough's enough, and consider relocating outside of Tampa Bay," Hagan said. "We're going to reach a point where we're past the point of no return."

Contact Will Hobson at whobson or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.