TAMPA, Florida - Once again, the Hillsborough County Commission is trying to prepare itself for a possible new Rays stadium, even though the City of St. Petersburg has not given the team, nor Hillsborough County, permission to interfere with its current contract.
Hillsborough Co. Commissioner Ken Hagan got unanimous support from his fellow commissioners on a plan to form a select committee to work on possible stadium negotiations if - and when - the Rays work out an amendment to their current contract with St. Pete. Hagan indicated the committee would operate under the umbrella of the Tampa Sports Authority (TSA), and would include himself, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, TSA CEO Eric Hart, and one member of the private business community.
"It's critically important that our community is unified," Hagan said after the vote.
He also got 7-0 commission support to line up a list of financial institutions to qualify and bid on potential debt service on the stadium, even though he admitted he didn't know how much taxpayers might ultimately be on the hook for.
"We know back in 2008, (the Rays) were amenable to investing $200-$250 million in a stadium," Hagan said. "(We don't know if) they're still considering that...(but) when you're considering a $500-$600 million facility, you're certainly going to have to have a considerable portion of that come from the team."
When 10 News asked if a similar $200-$250 million commitment from the team would be enough to get a Tampa stadium deal done, Hagan said, "I think it gets us in the game."
"(A new stadium) will certainly require multiple funding sources," Hagan continued. "It's going to be critically important for not only the team, but also the private sector to participate in any stadium, (regardless) of where its located."
Buckhorn added that the financial challenge was "huge," and indicated the jury was still out on whether it would make sense for the city to contribute public funds. He speculated the process would be "complex," & "not without its drama."
Hagan campaigned in 2010 on a platform of building the Rays a new stadium, although he said at the time he didn't support any public financing for the project. In the years since, Hagan has shifted, saying he supported "no new tax revenues" for a stadium during his repeatedly "flirtations," as he calls it, with the notion of luring the team to Tampa.
In July 2012, Hagan sought legal advice on whether the county could talk to the Rays while the city of St. Pete's contract remained in-place. In January 2013, Hillsborough County Commissioners met with the Rays, despite objections from some commissioners and warnings from the city of St. Petersburg that the meeting could interfere with its current 30-year contract, which the Rays signed prior to the 1998 season.
In August 2013, Hagan and Buckhorn held a joint press conference to announce their support for a stadium search in Tampa, but both men indicated current tax revenues would fall far short of what a new stadium would require.
Since the 2013 joint press conference, Buckhorn still claims Major League Baseball wants the Rays to play in a new downtown stadium, but has been much more hesitant in his support of a Downtown Tampa stadium. In recent months, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik has proposed new office, hotel, retail, and possibly even university plans that appear to take precedence.
"It will be tough to find sites downtown that make sense," a reserved Buckhorn said Wednesday afternoon.
The mayor reiterated his support for putting a MLB stadium downtown, but said other possible sites could be possible. He did not, however, express any interest in redeveloping the 60 acres in Westshore where Jefferson High School currently sits, as some Tampa leaders have ruminated.
Yet after years of talk, the Rays are still negotiating an "out" to their current contract and they have yet to suggest how the $500-$600 million cost of a new stadium could be paid for.
Hagan said he and the Tampa Sports Authority would wait patiently for St. Pete to iron out details of a deal with the Rays, but he was "very confident" it would happen by the end of the year. He said he expected the Rays to compensate the city for breaking its contract before 2027.
"(St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman) has to protect his city and do what's best for his constituents," Hagan said, "but I also believe he sees the big picture and the opportunity St. Pete has to really do something special (by redeveloping Tropicana Field)."
But former St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a contract amendment that would allow the Rays to move to Hillsborough if they bought out the end of their contract, says Hagan is playing into Major League Baseball's plan.
"Mr. Hagan has no idea what he's up against," Foster said of negotiating with MLB. "(Tampa Bay and the Rays) are up against 29 other owners who do not want Major League Baseball in Florida....they're savvy; they're ruthless; it's going to be very interesting."
Foster, like Kriseman, is an attorney by trade and is concerned that if St. Pete allows the Rays to look anywhere outside the city for a new stadium, it opens the door for them to look everywhere outside St. Pete.
"I don't think that is an accurate legal concern," Hagan replied. "It does not diminish (St. Pete's) legal argument at all by simple allowing (the Rays) to look."
When he replaced Foster at the beginning of the year, Kriseman said he was confident he could work out an amendment that would allow the Rays to explore Hillsborough County without harming the city's financial investment in the team. But nine months later, no deal has been reached yet.
Neither Kriseman nor the Rays provided any comments on Wednesday's developments.
"The only way to protect the taxpayers of (St. Petersburg) would be a binding, unambiguous, clear, concise buy-out provision," Foster said, indicating the Rays weren't interested during his term as mayor.
Yet Foster remains in Kriseman's corner, saying he hopes the mayor can strike a deal that both protects St. Pete taxpayers and keeps the Rays around for decades to come.
"If not," Foster said, "the Rays will have a maple leaf on their jerseys" - a nod to the Canadian city of Montreal, where baseball fans have started calling for the Rays to relocate.