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Rays stadium: Hillsborough candidates speak

10 News spoke to candidates for Hillsborough Commission to get their takes on the Rays' Stadium Saga.
Credit: Jamie Squire Getty Images
A view of the exterior of the stadium entry way is seen prior to game two of the 2008 MLB World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays during game two of the 2008 MLB World Series on October 23, 2008 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

TAMPA, Florida – The Rays' Stadium Saga may continue to drag on through another summer, but if other stadium stalemates are any indication, progress could be just an election away.

The Rays – and many fans – have expressed a desire for a new, centrally-located stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay. But with St. Petersburg owning exclusive negotiating rights with the team through 2027, Hillsborough County's Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) have been limited to broad speculations about a Tampa stadium.

Yet the next few years could prove to be important for the conversation, so 10 News reached out to every Hillsborough BOCC candidate ahead of the August primary election to see where he or she stood on the topic of building the Rays a new stadium.

MORE: Tampa Bay Rays Stadium - Continuing Coverage

2014: Where Pinellas BOCC candidates stand
2012: Where Hillsborough BOCC candidates stand
2010: Where Hillsborough BOCC candidates stand

* = incumbent
Write-in candidates were not included.

District 2 (No Primary)

Elizabeth Belcher (D) – Belcher says she is cautious against public handouts for retail developments, such as the money she says was wasted on county's Bass Pro Shops subsidies. But she says she is open to stadium discussions if the project can prove positive return on investment. However, she would like to see any new stadium project ultimately funded by user fees on tickets, concessions, parking, and merchandise.

"The people who are using the stadium should be the ones paying for it," she said. "After all, the county charges taxpayers user fees to use of the county parks" (albeit not the full cost to maintain the parks).

Victor Crist* (R) – In his four years in office so far, Crist has been lukewarm on the idea of a new Rays stadium, saying Hillsborough County's role should be to support Pinellas' efforts and that trying to lure a resource from one Tampa Bay community to another is like "competing against yourself." However, he has shown more support for a stadium if it is built in a blighted area of his district. Or, if the county could swap its seaport to Pinellas County for the Rays.

In 2014, Crist says "Hillsborough County should have a back-up plan in the event St. Petersburg and the Rays are unable to come to a satisfactory agreement" and although he doesn't support any new taxes, he indicated existing revenues, such as a TIF district and brownfield tax credits could help bond stadium construction. He also called on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to help break the current stalemate.

District 4

Rick Cochran (R) – In a crowded field, Cochran differentiates himself with an aggressive approach toward keeping the Rays. "If the City of St. Petersburg is not willing to amend the Rays contract language to allow them to look elsewhere within the region, then Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa should have whatever discussions are necessary to ensure the Rays remain in Tampa Bay," he said in an email.

His ideas to finance a stadium include existing tax dollars from the Downtown TIF district and private EB-5 investments, but Cochran says he does not support any additional taxes in Hillsborough County.

Janet Dougherty (R) – A self-proclaimed Rays fan, Dougherty said she wants to keep the team somewhere in Tampa Bay, but did not support spending county tax dollars on a Hillsborough stadium.

"Hillsborough County has critical infrastructure needs that should be funded before a stadium," Dougherty said, adding that Raymond James Stadium upgrades may be necessary as well.

Stacy White (R) – White, a Hillsborough County school board member, did not respond in time for inclusion.

District 5 (Countywide)(No Primary)

Ken Hagan (R) - Hagan will cruise to re-election without any opposition. Which likely means the county's most outspoken cheerleader for a Rays relocation will continue to "flirt" with the team, as he has proudly boasted. Back in 2010, he said he opposed any tax dollars going to a new Rays stadium, but more recently said he could support public subsidies in a deal that "furthers county goals." There are few leaders who have shown more public support for a Tampa stadium than Hagan.

District 7 (Countywide)

Al Higginbotham (R) – The two-term commissioner, now running for a county-wide seat, did not return requests for comment. But he has indicated as important as it is for the region to keep the Rays – it's not Hillsborough County's job. He was one of only two commissioners who voted against inviting the Rays to the table back in 2012, telling 10 News, "the county should respect the terms of the current contract."

Robin Lester (R) – Advocating a regional solution, Lester says public contributions – including bed taxes, new car rental taxes, "reasonable" tax credits, and even a multi-county tax effort – could help make a new stadium happen…as long as the private sector steps up too. She mentioned personal seat licenses (PSL) as a way to put more of the cost burden on the fans who would attend the games. Lester also says "there are no sacred cows" on the topic of saving the Rays and improving mass transit, but all expenditures should be thoroughly vetted.

Tim Schock (R) – A believer that baseball is both viable in – and important to – the region, Schock says Hillsborough County should open up more dialogue with St. Pete, Pinellas, Tampa, and state officials to "ensure the regional perspective is maintained without causing interference in ongoing discussions." He says it's important to recognize new stadiums are often not a cure-all and economic projections are often inaccurate. But Schock also kept the door open for public investment in a new stadium in Hillsborough County.

Don Krise (R) – Did not respond to requests for comment.

Patricia Kemp (D) – Did not respond in time for inclusion.

Mark Nash (D) – Nash says Hillsborough County should have a number of options already ready to present the team the moment talks fall apart with St. Pete/Pinellas. "We must, we should, be prepared to act fast," he said. Nash doesn't want to see another stadium financed 100% by public dollars, but is open to a public referendum on using city/county contributions toward a new baseball facility. He also stressed the importance he believes transit will play in the future success of both the team and a new stadium.

Read all of 10 News' coverage of the Rays Stadium Saga

Follow 10 News reporter Noah Pransky on Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky, Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky, or on his Sports Business blog, Shadow of the Stadium.

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