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Rays stadium fans captivated by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's land

The ConAgra plant at 110 S Nebraska Ave. in Tampa has been part of the downtown Tampa skyline for years.
The ConAgra plant at 110 S Nebraska Ave. in Tampa has been part of the downtown Tampa skyline for years.
Published Feb. 9, 2014

TAMPA — As often as not, speculation about a downtown Tampa baseball stadium drifts to a possible dream team that combines a Wall Street mogul and a hedge fund guru.

Stuart Sternberg owns the Tampa Bay Rays and would like to leave St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field. Jeff Vinik owns the Tampa Bay Lightning, leases the Tampa Bay Times Forum and is assembling acreage in the Channelside district.

Might Vinik offer up a big chunk of real estate so Sternberg can have a new home?

In recent interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor Bob Buckhorn expressed doubts.

Vinik declines to discuss his plans publicly, but Buckhorn has talked to him. A stadium near Vinik's 20 acres would serve the city's and Vinik's interests, Buckhorn said. But a stadium on the property? That may prove difficult.

For starters, the Rays moving to Tampa could create new competition for the Lightning and the Times Forum, Buckhorn said. In a mid-sized market like Tampa Bay, putting three professional sports teams in close proximity could create strain.

Vinik "could rightly look at the introduction of the Rays into this market as having negative impacts — on suite sales, advertising and ticket sales," Buckhorn said. "In the short term, that could affect his bottom line significantly, and we have to be respectful of that."

Vinik and his business partners also must consider the best use for their holdings, Buckhorn said. Vinik has floated the possibility of an L.A. Live-style entertainment district as well as a hotel. Other residential, office and retail development could also boost his property's value.

Baseball might attract 2 million fans a year or more to the area, but the stadium footprint — at 12 to 14 acres — would consume half of Vinik's current holdings without necessarily yielding ongoing income. Mid-sized market teams typically pay little or no rent to the stadium owner.

The best solution, Buckhorn said, could be locating the stadium just north of Vinik's property, on land now occupied by a ConAgra flour mill. That site "would require a sliver of Mr. Vinik's property but not gobble up the rest,'' Buckhorn said.

"He has to maximize the use of (his) property," he said. "We need to be cognizant of that and find a win-win for both parties.''

Lastly, St. Petersburg has not given the Rays permission to evaluate Tampa stadium sites, much less settle on one.

It's unreasonable to ask Vinik "to wait six, seven years to develop his property, so he may go ahead with something else,'' Buckhorn said. "He wants baseball to succeed in the Tampa Bay area. But he also wants to do what's in the best interest of the Lightning.''

Vinik, 54, gained community acclaim when he took over the Times Forum and the Lightning in 2010. He once ran the giant Fidelity Investments Magellan Fund. He stabilized a tipsy hockey franchise. He spent $40 million of his own money to spiff up the arena.

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"He has done an amazing job of taking that organization that was losing $30 million a year to (losing) significantly less, but it is still not healthy,'' Buckhorn said.

More recently Vinik has shown interest in overhauling Channelside Bay Plaza, a languishing entertainment and retail complex that has frustrated city officials for years. Vinik and his partners are looking at building a 400-room hotel with 50 condominiums, plus commercial and meeting space, on the parking lot at the corner of S Florida Avenue and Old Water Street.

Just before Vinik came to town, a real estate broker secured options on the land between the Times Forum and the flour mill and drew up plans for a stadium. She eventually dropped out of the picture, but the vision of that ballpark stayed etched in public consciousness.

So when Vinik began buying the same land, people hankering for a downtown Tampa stadium rejoiced at the notion that two sports moguls might turn drawings into concrete.

Buckhorn says he wants to create a Tampa option if the Rays cannot succeed in St. Petersburg.

But Vinik can't be expected to sacrifice large plots of land to make it happen, Buckhorn said.

Tampa will expand in 20 or 30 years, with more businesses and workers. But right now, he said, "it is still a challenge to support those three teams.

"This is not New York, this is not Chicago, it's not L.A. We don't have that much disposable income or corporate headquarters.''

Baseball in the Channelside area also could create scheduling conflicts between a stadium — with 81 regular season games — and the arena, one the nation's busiest with about 180 events a year, said Tampa developer Ken Stoltenberg.

But the flour mill site would more than compensate for that by connecting Channelside with downtown, he said. That would free up an old railroad spur for public use and spark taxable development in all directions, including toward the east where his company is developing two high-rise apartments.

"We could have another (economic) driver there,'' Stoltenberg said. "The city could earn more in taxes.''

The Tampa Port Authority could offer land for a new flour mill, but Buckhorn said he has heard of building costs of $60 million to $80 million, a big add-on to a stadium already projected at $550 million or more.

ConAgra is "open to talking'' about relocating, spokesman Becky Niiya said. As to a buyout price, "that would need to be worked out between ConAgra Mills and city officials.''

The mill site carries one financial advantage, Buckhorn said. It is within a special downtown taxing district currently paying off construction costs of the Tampa Convention Center. When those payments end in 2015, revenues could switch to a new capital project — like a stadium, providing $100 million or more toward costs such as land acquisition or infrastructure, Buckhorn said.

A stadium project outside the taxing district — such as the state fairgrounds or West Shore — could not use those funds, Buckhorn said, "and the city would be hard-pressed to participate.''

Recommitting downtown taxing district revenues to a new project would require Hillsborough County approval because almost half of that money comes from county taxes collected within the district.

A Channelside stadium, with road improvements and other infrastructure, could justify renewing the full county share, County Commissioner Ken Hagan said recently — as long as it did not lead to new property taxes.

"We should identify the mutual goals of the city and county'' for taxing district dollars, Hagan said. "If that money is used toward our goals, I'm comfortable giving 100 percent of the revenue.''

Any Tampa stadium would depend on the Rays reaching agreement with St. Petersburg about exploring sites beyond Pinellas County. Negotiations broke down last fall, but new Mayor Rick Kriseman and Sternberg will renew talks within several days, said Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby.

The topic: "The future of baseball and St. Petersburg."


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