Buckhorn, Hagan get specific about bringing the Rays to Tampa

Days after St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said that he would finally allow the Tampa Bay Rays to talk to officials in Hillsborough County about possibly relocating across the Bay, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Chairman Ken Hagan met to prepare for those discussions.

"I think we have to look at the economic realities, and the realities are, that it's not working where it's at currently," Buckhorn said about the Rays attendance problems at Tropicana Field. Although the baseball squad maintains one of the top records in the league, once again the team is struggling with attendance. With an average of 18,476 fans per game, the Rays are just barely ahead of the Miami Marlins in possessing the worst MLB attendance average.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has made it clear for years that he does not want to continue to play at Tropicana Field, but the Rays are locked in a lease with St. Petersburg until 2027. One year ago, a serious proposal for a new park in the Carillon area of St. Pete was laid out by private developer Darryl LeClair; but the Rays never agreed to discuss that plan with the city because they were waiting to get approval to speak to officials in Hillsborough County.

Despite the obvious buzz that Buckhorn and Hagan were feeling, any sit down with Rays management could still be weeks or months from now. That's because the St. Pete City Council must approve a deal that allows the Rays to adjust their agreement with the city and negotiate about a possible relocation, something that both men discussed, though Buckhorn seemed more sensitive to that fact than Hagan.

When asked why it was assumed that the Rays would draw bigger crowds in Tampa than in St. Petersburg, Buckhorn and Hagan mentioned several examples, such as the fact that more corporations are located in Tampa, and that a new ballpark could be built in the downtown area, which has been the trend for new baseball parks over the past couple of decades.

"We're not just speculating," Hagan said, referring reporters to the ABC report issued several years ago that said three of the five top spots for a new stadium would be in Tampa.

Most estimates of a new retractable ballpark in the Tampa Area are around $600-$650 million. Previously, Rays management has talked about paying up to a third of that amount. Another possible source of revenue could come from having the park inside an area that is already zoned as a  Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) which could conceivable leverage up to $100 million. 

But that would still require hundreds of millions of dollars, and both men said they are intent on not raising anybody's taxes. Hagan said there are "creative ways" to fill that gap, including stadium naming rights, using the EB-5 program (where foreigners who contribute millions of dollars to a development can get citizenship in the U.S.), and parking revenues.

"I believe, Mayor Buckhorn believes, that we can get to the magic number," Hagan said. "The challenge that we have now ... is that there's not one specific model that will be utilized in every location. The location will determine to some degree what financing options we have."

Hagan and Buckhorn also said that they are in the process of choosing individuals who would be part of a task force that works on finding the land and funding sources to build a new stadium, though no one specific was named. Hagan said the group can't be too large. "We don't want a 20-person committee," he said.  

When asked if they knew for certain that the people of Tampa wanted a new stadium built in their city, Hagan said he was certain they didn't want to have their taxes raised to do so. But he said he thinks the "vast majority" of people would be excited by the economic development potential and "quality of life that would be enhanced" by having a Major League Baseball in Tampa.

Only toward the end of the press conference did Buckhorn lapse into waxing romantically about what a new ballpark could mean for his city. 

"You put a stadium in downtown Tampa? You're going to transform this city in ways you can't even imagine. Because the ancillary development that will occur around it: commercial, retail, residential, hotels ... will require a whole different environment that we currently know." He then commented on how 15,000-30,000 people in the downtown area, 80 nights a year would "literally transform this place in ways that we can't even imagine."

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