Rays’ possible new Ybor home met with cautious optimism

Local officials say infrastructure needs and residents’ opinions of the Palm Avenue site being used for ballpark are among issues that need to be addressed.
A Kforce building seen in the distance on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at a possible site for a Tampa stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
A Kforce building seen in the distance on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at a possible site for a Tampa stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 6, 2021|Updated Oct. 6, 2021

TAMPA — Since the news broke this week that the Tampa Bay Rays are interested in an Ybor City site near Hillsborough Community College, local officials say much remains uncertain, including infrastructure upgrades necessary to make the former Kforce headquarters into a major league ballpark.

Still, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan celebrated the news as a major step forward in the team’s 14-year quest for a new home.

“I’m thrilled that the Rays are committed to Ybor City for this next ballpark,” Hagan said. “We have had very encouraging discussions with the team and are currently evaluating the necessary access and infrastructure needs associated with this location.”

Other elected officials disagreed over whether tax revenues from a community redevelopment zone should be used for the project. Black city and state leaders, meanwhile, said any ballpark discussion must place the concerns and well-being of residents front and center.

Clarifying the size and scope of the project, Rays President Brian Auld said last week that the team is committed to travel north to Montreal each summer, leaving spring training and the first few months of the regular season to be viewed in a smaller, open-air facility that would cost much less than the $892 million domed ballpark that the team unveiled at a nearby Ybor location in 2018.

Building a smaller ballpark would still likely cost hundreds of millions. Auld described the new concept as two ballparks in Montreal and Tampa for the price of one, which could translate into about $500 million apiece.

The Rays declined comment for this story.

Aside from cost, the necessary land hasn’t been assembled yet.

Earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Rays were considering a former Kforce headquarters site at the entrance of Ybor City as its new home in Tampa. The 1001 E. Palm Ave. property is directly across from the city-owned Fernando Noriega Jr. garage, also known as the Palm Avenue garage, and Hillsborough Community College. To make the plan work, the college’s 9.55 acres parcel to the east of the nearly nine acres on the Kforce land would likely have to be acquired.

Real estate investor Darryl Shaw, through a representative, declined comment Tuesday on his plans in regards to the community college land. His group bought the Kforce land in May.

To handle thousands of baseball fans for at least 41 games a year, infrastructure improvements must be completed before any first pitch is thrown. Brightline, the private passenger train company, has announced plans for a Tampa stop in its expansion west from Orlando, but an exact station location hasn’t been decided. Exits off Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 might also have to be widened or a new exit created.

Shaw’s group also owns the former Tampa Park apartments across the street from Kforce and property stretching southeast in the group’s 50-acre-plus Gas Worx development, which could be used for land swaps or potential parking needs.

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The Rays have hired Justin Day and a team from Capitol City Consulting to lobby on their behalf, Day confirmed Tuesday. He declined to discuss the nature of his lobbying activities for the team, saying team officials have directed him not to comment. Day and his associates, Nicholas Iarossi and Dean Izzo registered in Tallahassee in April, two weeks before the end of the 2021 legislative session, as team lobbyists.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose legislative district includes the possible stadium site, said he hasn’t heard anything yet about state money for a stadium.

“I’d like to see the Rays stay in St. Pete. I think they’ve been an important part of the community,” said Rouson, whose district crosses the bay and includes parts of St. Petersburg. “But how can I say anything when it’s moving from one area to another area in my district? Hopefully, the team will remain engaged in the community and bring economic impact to those areas of the city.”

One advantage to the Palm Avenue location is that it lies within the boundaries of the city’s Ybor community redevelopment area, which could be a source of millions of dollars to either be pledged as bond revenue or used to pay for infrastructure.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White didn’t sound enthused about the idea this week.

“In my mind, funding a stadium through a (community redevelopment area) is still unfair to unincorporated Hillsborough County because it’s encumbering tax dollars that otherwise would go for countywide benefits,” White said. “But because it’s an existing (community redevelopment area), sort of a legacy (community redevelopment area), I really don’t know whether or not my argument will hold water. I have to learn a little bit more on that.”

The Ybor City community, especially the advisory committee for the redevelopment zone, should be consulted, said Tampa City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes, whose district includes the site.

Gudes said he can’t support any general city funds being used for a ballpark, but if the advisory committee supports the proposal that would count for a lot with him.

“I can’t put a stranglehold on it. If that’s what Ybor wants,” Gudes said.

Another potential financing tool is the Hillsborough County tourist tax, specifically the so-called sixth cent, that’s charged on overnight accommodations. Hillsborough County began charging the sixth cent August 2019. It is projected to raise approximately $6.6 million annually. The commission approved the higher tax — without a specific capital project identified as the beneficiary — several months after the Rays pulled the plug on their initial attempt to arrange financing for a stadium in Ybor City.

So far, the county is using the proceeds for: Marketing by Visit Tampa Bay, renovation and expansion of the Tampa Convention Center and it budgeted about $2.6 million a year for other “cultural and attraction-based” capital projects.