The Hillsborough County Commission honored the state champion Sickles High School baseball team at the outset of its meeting Wednesday. A little over an hour later, County Commission chairperson Ken Hagan went to bat for expanding baseball and other sports tourism offerings in the county.
Hagan, whose teenage daughter plays travel softball, said amateur sports facilities generate hotel stays, spending on meals and entertainment and sales tax benefits to local governments.
“I know this is the case,” said Hagan. “Having attended an average of 15 to 20 tournaments a year, I feel it in the pocketbook.”
His comments came as consultants presented separate reports on the feasibility of building a 178,000-square-foot indoor sports gymnasium or an 11-field baseball/softball complex of at least 70 acres. Preliminary cost estimates put the combined price of the facilities at $123 million.
“I do not have rose-colored glasses. The price tag is very high,” Hagan told the rest of the commission.
The pot of money potentially available for the projects, however, changed this week when the Tampa Bay Rays announced plans to remain in St. Petersburg in a new stadium at the Historic Gas Plant District. It ended Hillsborough and Tampa’s pitch to lure the Rays to an Ybor City site, a plan that would have relied on Hillsborough’s tourist tax proceeds as a key funding mechanism, Hagan said.
The tourist tax, a 6% surcharge on overnight lodging, generated $56.7 million through the first 10 months of the current fiscal year. The proceeds are used to maintain county-owned Raymond James Stadium, Amalie Arena and George M. Steinbrenner Field. They also finance tourism promotions and provide matching grants for construction work at the Tampa Convention Center, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and other tourism or cultural projects.
The other likely financing tool would be the half-cent sales tax known as the community investment tax. The 30-year tax expires in 2026 and voters may be asked to renew the tax in November 2024.
A commission majority agreed with Hagan to seek additional information, including potential sites for the complexes. Commissioner Pat Kemp dissented, pointing to other capital construction needs facing the county.
“I am concerned about the big price tag,” said Kemp.
The proposals are for:
- A 178,000-square-foot indoor gymnasium that could hold 12 basketball courts convertible to 24 volleyball courts or up to three to four dozen spots for pickleball or badminton. The preliminary cost estimate is listed at $69.5 million, according to a marketing report by St. Petersburg-based Crossroads Consulting.
- A baseball/softball complex of 11 full-size fields. A 77-acre site could include a championship field with seating for up to 3,000 people at a total cost of $53.9 million. A smaller version, with less parking and no championship field, could be put on 70 acres for $47.6 million, according to preliminary estimates in a marketing report from The Sports Facilities Co. of Clearwater.
The vote doesn’t lock the county into the projects.
“This is a long road,” said Hagan.
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The proposal to expand the county’s sports tourism offerings follows on the Tournament Sportsplex of Tampa Bay, a 15-field complex for soccer and other sports that is owned by the county and managed by the Tampa Sports Authority. It played host to its first events in 2019, and recent data showed it exceeding early projections for generating revenue and hotel room stays.