Ken Hagan: Ybor City ballpark for Rays may still make sense even if community has to share team with Montreal.

The plan to build a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Ybor City didn’t materialize. This is a rendering of a proposed design. [Courtesy of Populous Architects]
The plan to build a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Ybor City didn’t materialize. This is a rendering of a proposed design. [Courtesy of Populous Architects]
Published Aug. 7, 2019

TAMPA — Hillsborough County should still work on bringing the Tampa Bay Rays across the Bay even if the team makes good on its idea to split future seasons with Montreal, said Ken Hagan, the veteran county commissioner who has worked for more than a decade to bring the team to Tampa.

Hagan said Wednesday that the county is still exploring the creation of an entertainment district in Ybor City, a venture that could include a small multi-use sports stadium as a potential future home for the Rays.

The Republican commissioner made the announcement during a briefing to other commissioners Wednesday, the first since principal owner Stu Sternberg shocked local leaders in June by saying his team wants to explore playing half of the season every year in Montreal.

"As a fan, I don't like the split-season concept. However, if it provides an opportunity for Tampa to get back at the table with the team, to negotiate with the Rays, then it's something we should consider," Hagan said. "We need to continue to position ourselves, get ourselves in the best possible position, when we have an opportunity to speak with the team."

Creating an entertainment district would need buy-in from local landowners to support setting up a Community Development District. It would raise revenue through property taxes and a tax on food, drink and sports tickets.

Hagan said a new stadium wouldn't necessarily be just for the Rays. It could be used by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the division II soccer franchise owned by the Rays. It could even be a new spring training home for the baseball team.

He stressed that it would not require any new taxes but could be built through a public-private partnership.

The proposed district is close to two Community Redevelopment Areas, a state designation that allows new property taxes to be spent on infrastructure like roads, sewers and other neighborhood improvements.

And the district also includes an opportunity zone, a federal designation that allows private developers to delay tax payments on profits from the sale of real estate and other investments if they invest in projects there.

It's still unclear how any potential deal can progress since the Rays' contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027 forbids the team from negotiating to play anywhere else.

St. Petersburg officials did give the team a three-year window in 2016 to explore other Tampa Bay sites. The result was a proposal for a $890 million ballpark in Ybor City. But the team and Hillsborough officials could not agree on a financing plan and the Rays window to look elsewhere expired in December.

Irwin Raij, the New York City sports business attorney who was hired by the county to work on a stadium deal, said he has since asked St. Petersburg on two occasions for permission to talk with the Rays. The city rebuffed both requests, he said.

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Raij, who is now working on behalf of the Tampa Sports Authority, said he has met with landowners of the Ybor City site and there is interest in an entertainment district.

"I think there is a path there if that's a path we want to go down," he said.

Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman met on Monday, their second face-to-face since the team floated the Montreal concept. Neither the team nor the mayor's office provided any details on what was discussed.

Kriseman has previously stated that the city will not let the Rays speak to Montreal for free.

Staff writer John Romano contributed to this report.