HIllsborough County forms group to meet with Rays on stadium — if talks ever happen

Following the lead of County Commissioner Ken Hagan, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners today voted to have a small working group be the lead agency to work with Tampa Bay Rays officials, if and when the St. Petersburg-based baseball franchise can work out a deal with St. Pete to speak to officials in Hillsborough about a potential site for a new ballpark.

That working group would consist of Hagan, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority CEO Eric Hart, and a member of the private sector to be named later.

The unanimous vote went without much of a hitch, with board members heaping praise on Hagan for being vigilant on the issue. An admitted baseball junkie, Hagan asked county attorneys over two years ago to look into the legality of even inviting the team to speak to them. That meeting finally happened in early 2013, but there's been no movement on the issue at all since then. Buckhorn and Hagan did hold a news conference later in the summer of 2013 to talk about the financing of such a proposed ballpark.

At one point in today's meeting, Commissioner Al Higginbotham asked Hagan if there would only be one commissioner in the working group, later saying that it was important to have minority representation. He later suggested that Commissioner Les Miller be chosen. That led Hagan and others to say that such representation would be crucial, along with neighborhood representatives, but only with an advisory group that would be formed if indeed the talks extended to having the Rays and the county talk about actual sites for a park. Hagan said such an advisory board would including members of the community as well as representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Tampa Partnership, EDC and others.

Miller and Higginbotham — who is running for a countywide seat for the first time this fall — both brought up the Raymond James Stadium experience, when people of color were not privy to discussions about the eventual construction of that football stadium located in West Tampa in the mid-to-late 1990s. (Hillsborough County's black and Latino population is now close to 50 percent).

"This tests our relationship with St. Pete," cautioned BOCC Chair Mark Sharpe, "because this is a sensitive issue." He added that was because of the sense by some in St. Petersburg that Tampa and Hillsborough are actively trying to steal away their major league baseball franchise. "No we're not," assured Sharpe, saying that it was a matter of both communities working together to find the best solution to a vexing problem. 

Sharpe also said that his research into the construction of such stadiums is that they work best in a downtown setting where redevelopment projects, walkability and public transportation play huge roles. 

Hagan corrected Sharpe, saying that stadiums work best in urban areas, not necessarily downtown ones. But he agreed on the transportation aspect.

Commissioner Victor Crist said that in fact there are three distinct downtown districts in Tampa: the area known as downtown, as well as the Westshore area and the University area in North Tampa.  

The Tampa Bay Rays lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2027, though owner Stu Sternberg has indicated that he will never wait that long before seeking a new ballpark. For the third consecutive season, the Rays finished dead last in attendance of all 30 major league teams.

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