In the not-too-distant future, the happy, hopeful vibe surrounding the Ybor City stadium plan will start to crack. It’s almost inevitable, really. The stakes are too high, and time is quickly running short.
And, more than anything, the money is not adding up.
That was always going to be the stumbling block, right? Location, drive times and the surrounding corporate head count were just details. The real trick was paying for a nearly $900 million stadium.
And I’m not sure there’s enough magic in Tampa Bay to make that happen.
That doesn’t mean the deal is presumed dead. It just suggests that someone — either Tampa Bay Rays ownership, a Hillsborough politician or a corporate partner — is going to have to come up with more cash than they’re currently considering. A ton more cash.
Here’s the basic dilemma:
Hillsborough officials want the public portion of stadium funds to be generated exclusively by the investment, redevelopment and spending of consumer dollars within what would be a newly designated Ybor City entertainment zone. In other words, no new taxes.
But that plan is predicated on the idea that the Rays will pay for half of the stadium themselves. And if the Rays consider that an affordable option, they certainly haven’t indicated it.
Which means we have what you might call the Ybor Gap.
Let’s say Hillsborough’s plan really is good for $450 million. That means the team’s contribution would have to be triple the $150 million owner Stu Sternberg originally suggested was doable.
Sternberg has since acknowledged the team will have to invest more than expected but there’s a long stretch of highway between $150 million and $450 million.
"That’s the dance, that’s the negotiation,’’ said attorney Ron Christaldi, a leader of the business group that is seeking corporate partners for the Rays. "All deals go through something like this.’’
The Rays say their share of the cost is contingent on how much more revenue they can generate but, lacking a gigantic deal for stadium naming rights from a Publix or a Hard Rock Casino, it’s hard to imagine the team is ready to drop $450 million.
"We are going to contribute more than makes business sense for us,’’ Sternberg said. "That reflects my strong desire to have MLB in Tampa Bay for generations to come. The corporate willingness to support is the one area that public officials and the Rays cannot really control. I still expect that to be the linchpin that informs our contribution size.’’
Is there another solution?
One option used in stadium deals elsewhere is a tourism tax. Whether it’s raising fees for rental cars, airports, cruise ships or hotel nights, it brings in revenues not typically paid by local residents.
But that has complications of its own.
Hillsborough has two referendums on the November ballot for education and transportation initiatives that would raise the county’s sales tax from 7 to 8.5 percent. To push through another tax — even one that dings tourists and not residents — is not going to happen before Nov. 6.
Even after that, it’s hard to imagine a Hillsborough official being bold enough to push it through before the Dec. 31 deadline the Rays have to negotiate outside of St. Petersburg.
So is the stadium in trouble? It sure seems that way.
And I don’t see a simple way out.