Tampa and Hillsborough County leaders are preparing to welcome the Tampa Bay Rays into stadium discussions, encouraged by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's striking comments this week that he would allow the team to explore Tampa stadium sites. Hillsborough leaders technically still need St. Petersburg's official OK to talk with the Rays. But, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has talked with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn about forming a committee to meet with Rays executives. The committee likely would include himself, Buckhorn, private businesspeople and members of the Tampa Sports Authority and Tampa Bay Partnership, Hagan said. It initially would sit down with Rays executives and ask them about future plans and needs, but future discussions could include possible sites around Tampa and Hillsborough County. Private landowners who might want to develop a stadium on their property would not have seats on the committee, Hagan said. Other leaders on the Hillsborough side of the bay have less formulated plans than Hagan, but sounded thrilled that Foster has softened his hard-line stance toward the Rays.
“We think it was a great move in making sure the Tampa Bay Rays remain the Tampa Bay Rays,” said Bob Rohrlack, chief executive of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Foster, who is running for reelection, has surprised many recently with his apparent about-face regarding the Rays. For a couple years, he was adamant that the team fulfill its contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, but in recent months his staff has been negotiating a contract amendment that might allow the Rays to look for stadium sites in Hillsborough County. On Tuesday, he went a step further by saying at a press conference that he supports letting the Rays look across the bay in Tampa. “My position hasn't changed in protecting and preserving the interests of the taxpayers,” Foster said Tuesday. “The objective is to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay for generations to come and the only way we get to have those discussions would be to allow exploration throughout the region.” Behind the mayor's change of heart is an acknowledgement that the Rays continue to suffer from some of the weakest attendance numbers in all of Major League Baseball, even though they continue to win. They've only recently drawn bigger crowds for series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. “We can't have declining attendances and still convince Major League Baseball that Tampa Bay and Florida is viable,” Foster said. Before anyone in Hillsborough County can meet with the Rays, St. Petersburg still has to amend the team's stadium contract or reach a separate agreement. Then, the City Council would have to approve it, city attorney John Wolfe said. He wouldn't reveal what hurdles remain to reaching a deal. Hagan is eager to get the conversation going. He expects to ask his fellow Hillsborough County commissioners to support creating a special committee to meet with the Rays some time in the near future. The committee would represent the interests of the Tampa side of the bay so it wouldn't include anyone from St. Petersburg or Pinellas County, Hagan said. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn couldn't be reached Tuesday to weigh in on Hagan's proposed committee, but he did issue a prepared statement praising Mayor Foster's move. “It is time we broke the stalemate, and I look forward to the opportunity for the Rays to explore all options,” Buckhorn said. “Commissioner Hagan and I have agreed throughout this process that the most important thing is for them to stay in Tampa Bay. I believe an agreement reached sooner rather than later will ensure their continued future here.” Backers of a Tampa stadium face a monumental task in, first, convincing the Rays to build in Tampa and, second, finding a way to cover its cost of $600 million or so. It's not clear how much the Rays would be willing to contribute to a new ballpark. The team declined comment Tuesday. A group of chamber of commerce leaders from Tampa and St. Petersburg formed a study group called the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus and found that paying for a stadium would be difficult, but not impossible. Last November, it released a plan that considered, among other things, increasing hotel taxes on tourists, creating a new car rental surcharge at Tampa International Airport and tapping into Hillsborough County's Community Investment Tax, which among other uses helps pay for Raymond James Stadium's bonds. The group even contemplated a novel way to raise money from wealthy immigrants. Through a program called EB-5, would-be immigrants essentially can buy a visa from the federal government if they are willing to invest either $500,000 or $1 million in a venture that creates jobs. The developers of the Brooklyn Nets' new arena used EB-5 money to pay for some infrastructure surrounding the arena. All told, a new stadium probably would require $350 million in public money, plus $150 million from the team, the chamber stadium caucus said. The biggest source of money could come from a hypothetical regional tax, in which people from several local counties would contribute to a stadium fund. However, it would be hard to get people in one county to support a tax for a stadium located in another county, said Eric Hart, executive director of the agency that runs Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Sports Authority. “When you look at the reality of it, are the taxpayers in the other areas going to approve it?” Hart said. “That's the sell.” That said, Hart said he thinks the Westshore area, downtown Tampa and the Interstate 4/fairgrounds area all could be good choices for a stadium. Some politicians reached Tuesday either don't support using any taxpayer money for a stadium, such as Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, or they aren't sure a new stadium in Tampa will draw that many more people than the current one in downtown St. Petersburg. Any deal that took the Rays to Tampa would have to compensate St. Petersburg for the loss of economic impact from having a major-league team in town, said St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. The Rays would have to factor that into their calculations to determine if a new stadium would be viable, he said. “I'm not convinced that moving 20 miles in any direction will have a huge impact on their attendance,” Nurse said. “Is it worth $500 or $600 million collectively? I don't know the answer to that.” email@example.com (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso