1. Florida Politics

As Rays search expands, Hillsborough offers a mixed bag of stadium options

TAMPA — Hillsborough elected officials Thursday welcomed a St. Petersburg City Council vote setting the stage for a Tampa Bay Rays stadium search that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn described both as a "big step forward" and the start of "a long, complicated process."

Now, as the Rays' search for a new home expands to Hillsborough, a handful of sites are likely to generate a lot of buzz — starting with the Tampa Park Apartments between downtown and Ybor City.

But first, forget the idea of building a stadium on Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's land near Amalie Arena.

Vinik and his partners at Cascade Investment have big plans for their 40 acres at the southern end of downtown Tampa — the University of South Florida medical school, major office buildings, hotels, apartments — but they haven't penciled in one square inch for a ballpark.

Still, urban sites are the trend for Major League Baseball.

"With the construction of virtually every new stadium," Buckhorn said, "they want it to be smaller-footprint, more intimate, with development around it, so it's walkable," ideally with access to mass transit.

"Based on those criteria, I think an urban stadium makes the most sense. But that's going to be up to the Rays."

First, according to the agreement approved Thursday, the Rays have 60 days to outline the process the team will use to evaluate sites. The team also has agreed to take at least six months to do its evaluation so St. Petersburg has a fair chance to make its case that the Rays should stay.

Buckhorn expects it to take 12 to 18 months to identify a site and put together financing.

To be ready, Tampa and Hillsborough officials have set up a committee to help facilitate the discussion here. It includes Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay president Brian Lamb. It could meet within two weeks, Hagan said.

To work, it would be good for sites to have 10 or more acres of developable land, to be close to where people live and work, and to have to plenty of parking and, ideally, transit nearby.

Also helpful: a small number of owners so that assembling a single site is not a nightmare, and being in a community redevelopment area, or CRA, so money is available for infrastructure like road improvements.

"Each site has different and very distinct challenges," Buckhorn said. "So the question becomes which ones are surmountable and which ones, in the scheme of things, are fights that you're not willing to entertain."

Tampa Park Apartments

Pros: One owner. Near downtown and Ybor City. Near parking garages. Inside a CRA. Nearby Union Station railroad terminal could play a role in future transit. Has 21 acres, but could be 40 if adjoining public property were added.

Cons: More than half the residents are low-income with federal housing vouchers, and the nonprofit owner reportedly is concerned about their future. Property likely not available before 2017 because of agreements with federal housing authorities. Moving and replacing Booker T. Washington Elementary School could cost $18 million and be controversial.

Jefferson High School

Pros: Near West Shore malls, office buildings, restaurants, hotels and apartments. Transit hub planned directly across the street. Proximity to Pinellas.

Cons: Expect a huge fight from the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens neighborhood and Jefferson alumni, many who bitterly remember how the school was moved once before. The site includes Roland Park K-8 Magnet and Lavoy Exceptional Center. Moving the schools could cost $100 million. The Hillsborough County School Board has signaled it's not interested.

Raymond James Stadium area

Pros: Lots of undeveloped land. Established stadium access.

Cons: No expectation that another stadium would generate spinoff development. Federal height restrictions related to Tampa International Airport's flight paths limit building heights south of RayJay. Potential conflict with the New York Yankees' Florida State League club. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own development rights to large plots to the north and east of RayJay.

Florida State Fairgrounds

Pros: Lots of land in public ownership. Good access via Interstate 4 and U.S. 301. Near to eastern Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco.

Cons: Isolated. Doesn't promise an urban vibe.

International Ship Repair docks

Pros: Close to Ybor City. One owner. Accessible by boat.

Cons: Not as close to downtown core. Moving shipyard dry-docks somewhere else in Port Tampa Bay wouldn't be cheap. Questionable street access and parking.

ConAgra flour mill

Pros: Downtown. In downtown CRA.

Cons: Moving it would cost an estimated $60 million to $80 million. At least some of Vinik's land would be needed.

The cruise port

Pros: Waterfront, government-owned site with 45 acres of developable land.

Cons: Like Vinik, Port Tampa Bay officials have plans for their own $1.7 billion mixed-used development. They do not include a stadium.

Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park

Pros: Its 23 acres and location near downtown have generated speculation.

Cons: Politically, it's a non-starter. West Tampa neighborhood opposition would be likely. Tampa's charter requires a citywide referendum to sell it. And Buckhorn plans a new $30 million city park there. Once asked about a stadium there, he said, "No. No. No. God, no."