Hillsborough, Pinellas not cooperating on Rays' future

Bidding war brewing over Rays

Elected leaders in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties vowed to do anything possible to keep the Rays in the region long-term. But 10Investigates has learned there's been zero coordination between the two sides as they each compete to build the Rays a new ballpark, even disagreeing on informal ground rules to prevent a bidding war.

As the Rays stadium saga enters its 10th year, officials in both Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg have been meeting privately with the team to discuss possible stadium locations.

Hillsborough's lead negotiator, commissioner Ken Hagan, told WDAE-AM on Monday he has worked with the team to narrow a list of sites down to "one or two" that would connect Tampa's Channelside, and Ybor neighborhoods.

Hagan, who has repeatedly refused interview requests from 10Investigates, also said the county's bankers in New York have been meeting with the Rays' banking team to discuss stadium financing, possibly a bigger challenge for the region than finding an appropriate site.

But that conflicts with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman saying he hopes to avoid a competition between Hillsborough and Pinellas.

"When we start getting into detailed conversations about financing," Kriseman said, "what we set ourselves up for is a bidding war, and then the taxpayers are the losers when that happens.”

St. Petersburg has been meeting with the Rays privately as well and seems to hold a distinct advantage over Hillsborough County when it comes to available funding streams for a new stadium, since Hillsborough is already paying for two other stadiums and a convention center.
 
Kriseman has also been bullish on the possibility of a new stadium next to the existing stadium, so redevelopment at the Tropicana Field site could help fund the project.  

When asked why he hasn't sat down at the table with the Rays and Tampa/Hillsborough officlals, Kriseman said he expected each side to pitch its best site and let the Rays choose their favorite. Kriseman said he hoped both counties would then rally around the chosen site and hope the financing fell into place.

"We’re not getting into a bidding war because that doesn’t do any of us any good," Kriseman said.

St. Pete has even enlisted Dick Vitale in its "Baseball Forever" campaign.

But looking strictly at location, Hillsborough may have an advantage. The possibility of a stadium within walking distance to both Channelside and Ybor City may be difficult for the Rays to pass up. Financing, however, would be a major challenge there.

“For this to work, the team’s going to have to be at the table with at least $200 million, maybe $250 million," Hagan said on WDAE.

He added that the overall cost of a stadium might be in the “550 to 700 million-dollar range," depending on things like whether it would have a retractable roof and an upper deck.

But that leaves a funding gap of at least $300-400 million. Hillsborough County's tourist tax would likely fund only about $75-80 million of construction.

Hagan said in 2010 that he objected to any public funding going toward a new stadium, but has changed his tune in recent years, telling WDAE "there will have to be some public money involved, hopefully primarily tourist tax dollars.”

Hagan suggested tax dollars could contribute toward a project's "infrastructure" and "perhaps mass transit."

The Rays have also not responded to 10Investigates' requests for comment regarding possible funding and preferred locations.

But the team has two more years to explore both sides of the bay. And given the lack of political opportunity for substantial subsidies right now, it appears they may continue to take their time.

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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