1. Florida Politics

Hillsborough officials plan quick moves on Rays stadium options

TAMPA — With St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster saying he's willing to let the Tampa Bay Rays look at potential stadium sites in Hillsborough County, officials here want to move quickly.

"It is time we broke the stalemate," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in a statement Tuesday. "I look forward to the opportunity for the Rays to explore all options."

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he plans to propose creating a task force of elected officials and business leaders to work with the Rays on exploring options.

Hagan envisions that the group likely would include himself, Buckhorn and representatives of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Sports Authority and the Tampa Bay Partnership. He also wants business leaders, namely Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, who led a chamber of commerce stadium financing task force.

Hagan is not thinking of including owners of potential stadium sites — so as not to limit the options — and wants to keep the group from getting too big.

"We need to ensure that it's a manageable group," he said.

Hagan hopes to float his proposal with the Hillsborough County Commission soon, possibly at its meeting in two weeks.

Ideally, he said, the St. Petersburg City Council would vote to let the Rays expand their search.

On Monday, Foster told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that he had come to the conclusion that in order to keep the Rays in the bay area, St. Petersburg needed to give the team that latitude.

Foster had long opposed letting the Rays look in Hillsborough, but he changed his mind after watching the team struggle to sell tickets.

Foster and team executives have talked quietly for months on a legal framework to let the team explore sites in Hillsborough.

Foster declined to reveal details of the negotiations, saying he's working to protect the economic and legal interests of St. Petersburg, which has spent about $150 million on stadium and operating costs.

The agreement could define the ground rules for the search and reinforce the team's current obligation to play at Tropicana Field through 2027.

It also could spell out any fees or concessions the team must pay for getting the freedom to look. It would require the St. Petersburg City Council's approval.

Buckhorn has said he doesn't know what a Tampa stadium deal would look like, how much it would cost or where it might be located, but he's confident "the Rays would be warmly received here."

"Tampa is a baseball town," he said. "We've got as long a history of baseball in this town as any place in America."

The best bet, he said, is to reach an agreement "sooner rather than later."

"It would be a complicated project, but it is worthy of a full and healthy discussion," he said.

Both Buckhorn and Hagan have said they expect the lion's share of stadium funding to come from the team and private sector.

But while ruling out the kind of general sales tax increase that paid for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stadium in the 1990s, both also have entertained using other forms of public participation for a stadium.

For example, City Hall estimates it could contribute about $100 million to a downtown stadium project after 2015, when the bonds on the Tampa Convention Center are paid off.

Buckhorn does not see the money as a tax increase because it's already being collected inside the city's downtown community redevelopment area. The revenue is generated as downtown property values rise, and the city must spend it on capital improvements and infrastructure to improve the CRA.

Still, the CRA, which the county would have to agree to renew in coming years, is not expected to generate enough revenue to pay for a stadium and infrastructure.

"There's going to have to be some sort of investment from other sources as well," county chief financial officer Bonnie Wise said.

To close that gap, Tampa land-use lawyer Ron Weaver said, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Since 1990, 26 major league baseball teams have gotten new stadiums, and the public's share of the cost has averaged 59 percent, according to his research.

A "humble" stadium might cost $492 million, while one more in keeping with what's been built elsewhere could cost $608 million, said Weaver, who has studied and been involved in such projects for 20 or more years. He said the public's participation could come in a variety of ways, including:

• Taxes on rentals of hotel rooms or cars.

• Federal New Markets Tax Credits, created to give lenders an incentive to finance projects that might struggle to get traditional financing.

• Ticket surcharges, like the one that helped finance what is now the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

• Funds raised through the federal EB-5 program. The program allows foreigners to obtain a temporary visa by investing $500,000 to $1 million in projects that create jobs and to get permanent residency if the jobs remain after two years. Hagan estimates that could raise $100 million to $150 million for a stadium.

There's also money the project itself can generate — if it's more than just a baseball stadium.

A stadium with a retractable roof, 35,000 to 40,000 seats and luxury boxes could host dozens of premium concerts (think Beyoncé) and large conventions (think Mary Kay) a year, Weaver said.

If built with state-of-the-art audio, video and broadcast streaming capabilities, not only could the stadium sell concert tickets, but pay-per-view broadcasts might also generate revenue. If the stadium has the reputation of being a stellar concert venue, he said, that could drive up revenue from naming rights.