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Tampa Bay Rays pitch state help for Ybor stadium plan

New work on an Interstate 4 exit also could aid transportation near potential site.
The former Kforce headquarters on East Palm Avenue in Tampa is the focus of a possible new stadium pitch from the Tampa Bay Rays, county officials have said. The Rays already approached Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson about possible state help with infrastructure costs with a new stadium in Ybor City.
The former Kforce headquarters on East Palm Avenue in Tampa is the focus of a possible new stadium pitch from the Tampa Bay Rays, county officials have said. The Rays already approached Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson about possible state help with infrastructure costs with a new stadium in Ybor City. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 8

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays’ potential move to a stadium in Ybor City already includes a team pitch for state financial assistance.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said a Rays representative spoke to him about a month ago about an unspecified stadium site in Ybor and the likelihood that state aid would be needed for infrastructure costs. The team has yet to make a formal funding request, he said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me between now and the start of session (in January) if they ask for help with some infrastructure around that area,” Simpson said.

Related: Rays ballpark plans focus on former Kforce site in Ybor City

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this week the Rays are interested in an Ybor City site near Hillsborough Community College. The location, at 1001 E. Palm Ave., contains the former headquarters of Kforce, a professional staffing company.

Developer Darryl Shaw and other investors closed on the purchase of the Kforce property and an adjoining vacant parcel for $24 million in May. The nearly 9 acres is too small for a major league baseball stadium, but sits adjacent to 9.5 acres owned by Hillsborough Community College and leased to Tampa Electric Co.

A new stadium brings with it inherent infrastructure expenses that could reach tens of millions of dollars or beyond for interstate highway improvements, realigned streets, sidewalks, utility work and a potential mass transit component.

The Rays are seeking a new stadium as part of their sister-city concept to split seasons between Tampa Bay and the city of Montreal. Rays President Brian Auld said last week that the team was committed to travel north to Canada 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 of dollars. Auld described the concept as ballparks in Montreal and Tampa for the price of one, which could translate into about $500 million apiece.

Earlier this year, the Legislature killed the state’s sports development program, established in 2014, that set aside money to build and renovate professional sports facilities. The dollars had never been tapped during the seven years the program existed. It means any state assistance likely would focus exclusively on surrounding transportation and other infrastructure, not the actual stadium.

Related: Rays' possible new Ybor home met with cautious optimism

“Obviously, it’s very important for the Tampa Bay area to keep the Rays there. And anything we can do to try to be helpful to the Tampa Bay area to facilitate the Rays (staying), I certainly would want to consider,” Simpson said.

Toward that end, coincidentally, Simpson, Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, traveled to Tampa last month to announce that $2 billion in extra transportation funding would mean an accelerated work schedule for regional highway projects including the downtown Tampa interchange of Interstates 4 and 275, known derisively as malfunction junction.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with regional transportation secretary David Gwynn while state Senate President Wilton Simpson, back left, looks on before a Sept. 13 a news conference about the accelerated work schedule for regional highway projects including a new Interstate 4 exit in Ybor City.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with regional transportation secretary David Gwynn while state Senate President Wilton Simpson, back left, looks on before a Sept. 13 a news conference about the accelerated work schedule for regional highway projects including a new Interstate 4 exit in Ybor City. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Related: Malfunction junction fix could come sooner than expected

The work includes making access to Ybor City easier via a $66.8-million project to build a new I-4 exit ramp at 14th/15th streets, widening a frontage road and other safety improvements. The county’s Transportation Planning Organization is scheduled to vote on the funding plan Wednesday.

David Gwynn, regional secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, said Friday the state expected “to have a contractor on board by May.” Gwynn, appearing at the Café con Tampa speaker series at the Oxford Exchange, said the interchange work is projected to decrease by half the 1,000 crashes at or near the I-4/1-275 junction every year.

Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda said this week that when he heard about plans for a new Ybor exit, he immediately thought it had something to do with a Rays ballpark.

“It was red light, red light, red light,” he said, describing what he saw as strong signals that plans for an Ybor stadium were solidifying.

Simpson acknowledged the ancillary benefits of the interchange safety work to a potential baseball stadium in Ybor City.

“In the meantime, the infrastructure we are doing is certainly going to make it a lot better if they (Rays) show up,” he said.