1. Florida Politics

Fairgrounds not discussed as potential Rays stadium site at meeting of team, Hillsborough officials

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Rays executives met with Tampa and Hillsborough officials Monday to go over a half-dozen or more potential sites for a new ballpark, but this time the Florida State Fairgrounds was not in the mix.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said after the 90-minute meeting he felt confident that going forward neither side is likely to discuss the fairgrounds as a possible stadium site for a couple of reasons. It's not urban enough for the Rays, and it's just too far away from St. Petersburg.

But Rays president Brian Auld, County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said it's still too early to count out any site.

That's because each potential Hillsborough site has challenges, and all four men said it's possible that their first choice might not be feasible, so they could end up going to a backup.

"I wouldn't say anything is out of the running," Auld said. "We always talk about finding the pitch-perfect place. Our initial thoughts are that the fairgrounds probably is not it, so we want to explore as many options as possible. But we know we need to remain practical through this entire process as well."

Other potential locations reportedly include the Tampa Park Apartments site near downtown, the Jefferson High School site in West Shore, the Tampa Greyhound Track and docks near Ybor City now used by International Ship Repair. Another site, the ConAgra flour mill near downtown, is generally seen as too small and too expensive, since the mill would have to be moved somewhere else.

Auld said the team's market research is continuing but has found support for the idea of a ballpark with community features such as a training facility that's used by a local university, for instance, or kitchen facilities open to culinary education programs.

"We're hearing from a majority of our fan base and people throughout the Tampa Bay area that the idea of a 365-day-a-year active ballpark is really exciting," Auld said. "I think people want to do all sorts of activities in and around the ballpark."

But the two sides have not discussed what role public financing would play in a ballpark accessible to the community.

"We can assume that conversation is coming, but we haven't had that conversation," Buckhorn said. Before the next meeting, local officials said they intend to continue to study possible financing options and infrastructure requirements needed at each site.

Depending on its design, features and type of roof, a new ballpark could cost an estimated $400 million to $700 million. Depending on the location, the public financing package for the project could include as many as 10 different sources of funding. On top of money from the team, those could include property taxes earmarked for community redevelopment in areas like downtown Tampa, rental car surcharges, some hotel bed taxes, money authorized by the Legislature, ticket user fees and foreign investment available through the federal government's EB-5 visa program.

Among other things, the Rays, who play most of their games about 7 p.m., are studying not only drive times to various sites, but how those drive times are affected by the time of day.

"We want to know how long it takes you to get to a certain place at a certain time," Auld said.

No one would say when the Rays might make a decision which side of Tampa Bay they prefer for a ballpark, and what their No. 1 site will be.

"If one thing has become clear as we've gone through this, it's that while we certainly want to move quickly, we can't afford to be impatient, either," Auld said. "We need to let things unfold in their natural course, so we aren't going to push so hard that we don't get it right."

Contact Richard Danielson at Follow @Danielson_Times