LAKE BUENA VISTA — Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Wednesday that the team is "genuinely excited" about the proposed Ybor City site for a new stadium and more than "cautiously optimistic" the project can be completed.
But he also provided a glimpse of the bigger challenge of paying for it, suggesting that based on initial projections the team might only cover $150 million of the projected $800 million cost.
In speaking specifically for the first time about the site pitched last month by Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times:
• The Rays had input and feel the site "looked clearly" to be the best of the workable Hillsborough options.
• Their contribution to the project will be based on projections of how much their revenues would increase, and could end up being higher or lower than the $150 million.
• They need to see support from the community in terms of commitments for season tickets and sponsorships, hoping to increase both by at least 50 percent.
• The stadium needs to have a roof of some kind, whether retractable, fixed or something else being determined by the overall budget.
• While working on the Hillsborough site they "haven't dismissed by any means" staying in St. Petersburg at a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site, but acknowledged that would be a tougher sell to Major League Baseball.
Sternberg talked about the project for more than 30 minutes before the start of the quarterly owners meetings, and his comments about the financing aspects are certain to attract the most attention.
He said several times the amount of their contribution to the public-private partnership would be based on detailed projections on increased sales of season tickets and sponsorships that were still in the works, and could be influenced by "a drive" or other public effort — such as "businesses knocking on the door" to take part — illustrating additional support, and thus proving that moving from St. Petersburg would be the catalyst.
But he also said they had enough preliminary information to use the $150 million — the same amount they were talking about committing to a failed 2008 proposal on the St. Petersburg waterfront — as a working number.
"We've tried to make some guestimates, some estimates on what would be prudent for us, what would give us the ability to take this step in committing to a physical place for another generation or two, and our thought process is it's probably in the $150 million range," Sternberg said. "We might find out that's too much. We might find out that we can afford more."
At just $150 million, that would leave Hagan and area government and business leaders to come up with the rest, at least $650 million. With no appetite for a tax increase to pay for a stadium? Like the sales tax referendum that built Raymond James Stadium? It will take a creative cocktail of financing mechanisms.
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Options include taxes collected from hotels, rental cars, and food and drinks sold near the stadium on game days, plus leveraging the expected growth in property taxes as a result of development around the ballpark.
At Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting, Hagan acknowledged negotiations over who will pay for the new digs could take a year and won't be easy.
"I don't know if we'll ever get there," Hagan said.
As proof, three commissioners made sure to announce at the meeting they opposed taxpayer money for a ballpark.
"It's going to take a lot of oars in the boat to pull this forward, but I know we're committed. We've been waiting long enough certainly," Sternberg said. "Nobody wants this done sooner or better than we do, than I do. And we're committed to seeing it through."
Hagan also took flak from other commissioners over the secretive nature of the deliberations to date, suggesting he should take a step back or at least share his role as Hillsborough's lead Rays negotiator with senior county staff.
"I think this arrangement does create some problems for the other six commissioners here," Commissioner Pat Kemp said.
To Hagan, the comments amounted to a personal affront to him or a backdoor attempt to derail any progress. For the first time, it showed there might be cracks in a previously united effort to lure the Rays from St. Petersburg.
"That's a hell of a signal that you're suggesting," Hagan said.
For years Sternberg has said the Rays needed to find a "pitch perfect" site for a new stadium, a nod to the majors-worst attendance at their current site that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and others attribute to the location in downtown St. Petersburg, far from the population center of the area.
After acknowledging this spring that several preferred Hillsborough sites were deemed unavailable, Sternberg said the current site "seems to" meet their goal of being better located and part of a destination area, though it ultimately may depend on what gets built around it by developers.
Hagan said the Rays made "very clear that it met all their criteria," and called the location the "Rays' site." He also said he expected the Rays to "very soon" announce they want to move the team to Ybor.
But Sternberg said they plan to continue to explore re-elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's plan to build a new stadium at the site of Tropicana Field.
That would seem like a basic negotiating ploy to get a better deal in Hillsborough, though Sternberg insisted they are "going to go to great pains not to play them off each other," that they see it more as "put your best foot forward."
He acknowledged that "all data points say no" about staying in downtown St. Petersburg and they would need to see even more promising projections, but the potential for lower costs and a quicker timetable could make it more appealing.
Sternberg said he remains committed to the Tampa Bay area, but the key to making any new site work for them, and as importantly, to get MLB officials and owners to agree, will be the potential of increased revenue, though it won't all be committed to the stadium as some would be used to boost the team payroll.
"I would say our contribution could be largely based on the support that gets drummed up by specific municipalities or groups and us as well," he said. "And if this falls on a lot of deaf ears then I have my answer."
Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report.