TAMPA — Is the proposed $892 million Ybor City ballpark within reach or about as likely as a successful suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth?
We may know by the end of the year.
The Tampa Bay Rays are pushing Hillsborough officials to present a financing "structure" for a new ballpark before its deal to look for a home outside of St. Petersburg runs out Dec. 31, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
The plan would detail how a new stadium will be paid for and provide long-awaited answers about how much the team is willing to contribute. To that end, serious negotiations with the Rays are expected to start in the "near future," Hagan said Wednesday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Ybor City.
If agreement on a financing plan can be reached, it will be followed by an economic study on the impact of a new ballpark and a surrounding entertainment district.
"This will allow us to have a very transparent public discussion on the merits of the proposal, as well as the value of the team remaining in Tampa Bay," Hagan said.
The Rays announced in February that the site in the northeast corner of Adamo and Channelside Drives was where they wanted a new ballpark. The team unveiled a stadium design in July.
But there has been little visible progress since then other than efforts by Rays2020, a business group, to drum up interest in season tickets and naming rights.
The Rays only have a little more than three months before the team's three-year agreement with St. Petersburg to look for a new home expires. The team is now seeking a higher comfort level that a viable financing plan can be put together before it commits its future to Ybor, Hagan said.
"I think the pace will intensify here in the coming months," he said. "They have to be able to tell St. Petersburg, 'This is our plan.'?"
The hefty ballpark price tag means officials will have to tap a variety of funding sources.
Hagan said those sources will likely include tourist taxes, community redevelopment area funds, financing based on economic opportunity zones and fees from a new entertainment district around the ballpark.
Landowners around the stadium have been contacted about either selling their land or becoming part of that district. That includes Tampa Park Apartments owner S. Kay Andrews and George Lorton, CEO of International Ship Repair, whose land includes valuable waterfront property at the northern tip of the Ybor Channel.
"Basically, every hotdog, beer or T-shirt that's purchased within that district would go toward paying for that stadium so it's not taxpayer money, it's a fee-based structure," Hagan said. "We're going to have to be extremely creative to come up with the necessary funding."
Two recent developments have boosted Hagan's optimism that private investment will shoulder the bulk of the cost.
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South Florida railroad firm Brightline is scouting land around the ballpark site for a terminus for a proposed high-speed rail link to Orlando. The firm typically develops land around a station to subsidize rail operations.
The other is the recent designation of the ballpark site as an economic opportunity zone.
The federal incentive offers substantial tax breaks for private firms that undertake capital projects like development within the boundaries of an opportunity zone. That could mean the Rays would own the ballpark, instead of the traditional model where a stadium is owned by city or county government and leased to a team, he said.
Hagan, who is running to stay on the county commission this year, stressed that any risk from the project should be borne by the team and not taxpayers.
Still, its unclear how willing the Rays will be to take on ownership of a ballpark and to up their contribution.
Previously, principal owner Stu Sternberg said the Rays had no interest in getting into the real estate business. The team would likely contribute more than the $150 million he originally suggested, but he has not disclosed how much more.
"We remain eager and committed to seeing this beautiful, iconic ballpark become a reality," Rays president Brian Auld said in an email when asked for a statement about Hagan's announcement.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the team will have to come up with more than Sternberg has publicly indicated.
"That dog don't hunt," Buckhorn said. "There's going to definitely have to be movement on that front before this thing picks up any momentum. We're going to need to know what the Rays and Stu Sternberg's commitment is for us to know with certainty what our obligation might be."
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this story. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.