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Rays stadium plan is the goal for Hillsborough working group

TAMPA — If the Tampa Bay Rays ever get permission to look at new baseball stadium sites in Hillsborough County, a small group led by County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will likely lead discussions.

Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday morning unanimously approved Hagan's proposal to designate the Tampa Sports Authority as the lead agency to deal with the Rays in the event that the city of St. Petersburg allows the team to look outside Pinellas County for a new home.

Hagan plans to put together a small "working group" including himself, Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority CEO Eric Hart and an undetermined member from the private sector. Hagan said Wednesday he has a few names in mind but declined to disclose them.

"The time is right to move forward and take the next step," Hagan said.

Wednesday's vote matters, of course, only if St. Petersburg grants the Rays permission to look in Hillsborough for a new stadium. The club is contractually tied to Tropicana Field through 2027 but has long been trying to get permission to look elsewhere for a stadium. The Rays continued to struggle with attendance in 2014, finishing last among the 30 teams in major-league baseball.

Both the Rays and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman declined to comment Wednesday.

Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman, said Kriseman and Rays officials are having "productive, very helpful, very positive meetings."

Hagan is convinced the impasse between the Rays and St. Petersburg will end soon and wants Hillsborough to be prepared when that happens.

"The message we are looking to send to the Rays and Major League Baseball is that Hillsborough County is ready," Hagan said.

Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Les Miller asked if a minority member would be on Hagan's working group. Hagan said one of the possible private sector representatives is black, but he also assured the commissioners that this working group would be just the first step of a multistep process.

The Tampa Sports Authority has previously helped broker deals to build and manage Hillsborough's two professional sports venues, Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena.

Any agreement involving public financing as part of a new stadium would likely need both city and county money, as well as approval from both the Hillsborough commission and Tampa's City Council.

"This is probably one of the most important issues you will all face going forward," said Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe, who leaves office in November because of term limits. "This is really about a community, Tampa Bay, and our ability to be a major-league community."

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

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