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Jane Castor ‘optimistic’ Tampa could share Rays with Montreal in 2028

Tampa’s mayor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan met with Rays owner Stu Sternberg to discuss Tampa — not St. Petersburg — as the team’s future Tampa Bay home.

TAMPA — Hillsborough and Tampa leaders and the Tampa Bay Rays — including owner Stu Sternberg — set an aggressive timeline for reaching a deal to move the team across the bay in 2028.

The end of the year.

It’s an ambitious plan that requires a sign-off by both the Montreal group headed by Stephen Bronfman and Major League Baseball on the split-season concept, an arrangement Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan likened to a three-legged stool. (Hillsborough County and Tampa would be the third leg — not St. Petersburg.)

“The goal is to try and have an agreement with all three entities by the end of the year. It’s extremely aggressive. However, having gone through the last several-year exercise, I appreciate the sense of urgency and the goal of trying to reach an agreement as quickly as possible,” said Hagan, who led the talks with the team for the proposed $892 million stadium in Ybor City before they broke down in December 2018.

Related: Rays reject Ybor City stadium, remain committed to Tampa Bay

The 2½-hour meeting in Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s office lasted 30 minutes longer than scheduled, delaying a formal signing of a police union contract.

Afterward, both Hagan and Castor said they were encouraged by the tenor of the conversation about finding a home for the Rays in Tampa after the 2027 season.

“I’m optimistic about it,” Castor said. “The Rays want to stay in the Tampa Bay area. We want to keep them in the Tampa Bay area, and we’re going to do everything that we can with the caveat that the citizens’ appetite of paying for a stadium is about zero at this point.”

The Rays released this statement after Monday’s meeting:

“Today, we took a meaningful step toward securing the future of Rays baseball in Tampa Bay beyond 2027. We appreciate Mayor Castor and Commissioner Hagan’s leadership and look forward to a continued dialogue with city and county stakeholders. We remain focused on the Sister City concept and unwavering in our commitment to work in partnership with the community as this process moves forward.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he intends to hold the team to its commitment to play in his city until its use agreement to play at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season. He hasn’t commented publicly on any negotiations with the Rays, but city council members who he has briefed privately say the mayor hasn’t given up trying to keep the Rays in the Sunshine City.

Related: Kriseman tells City Council members in private: 'Relax, we know what we're doing'

A spokesman for Kriseman said the mayor declined to comment on Monday’s developments.

Ybor City remains the preferred Hillsborough County site for the Rays, although Hagan said the team indicated its open to other Hillsborough locations if they proved viable.

Specific numbers weren’t discussed, but the two sides agreed that funding mechanisms like community development districts, tax-increment financing and federal opportunity zone investment were “all viable options," Castor said.

An open-air stadium to use before summer rains begin will likely cost hundreds of millions less to build. But public sentiment so far has been mixed on splitting the season with Montreal.

Nevertheless, Hagan said he’s committed to exploring the idea.

“The Rays were extremely transparent and we’re excited about the possibility of working together to ensure the team stays here for generations to come,” Hagan said. “I still believe there are considerable challenges with this concept. However, I think it’s one we need to explore and we’re going to do everything we can to see if we can make it work."

Castor agreed, but said she hadn’t given up hope for keeping the Rays for the entire 162-game season.

“The focus was on the split season, but I don’t think the full season is off the table yet," Castor said.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.