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Buckhorn: Hillsborough ballpark requires ‘significant’ Rays investment

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays may be asked to put up $200 million or more toward any future stadium in Hillsborough County, at least a third of the project’s cost, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Friday.

Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan held a joint news conference Friday to discuss a potential city-county effort to lure the Rays to Hillsborough County. The meeting was remarkably sudden, given that St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster just revealed Monday that he approves of letting the team look across the bay for stadium sites.

However, Buckhorn and Hagan both said a Rays stadium could be a huge economic benefit to Tampa and Hillsborough County by spurring new development surrounding any future ballpark.

“This will be complicated. This will be expensive,” Buckhorn said Friday. “But certainly it will be worth the effort.”

Buckhorn and Hagan met for about an hour at City Hall on Friday morning, and afterward shared some thoughts on the city and county’s potential Rays bid with media outlets.

Buckhorn said a future retractable-roof stadium likely would cost at least $600 million, and raising that much money would require tapping into several pots of money. First, the Rays would have to contribute a “significant” amount of that money, possibly $200 million to $300 million, the mayor said.

Six years ago, the Rays were only willing to contribute $150 million toward their doomed plan for a new stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

A spokesman for the Rays on Friday declined comment about how much the team is willing to contribute.

Another source of potential funding is an existing tax on downtown landowners, through the city’s Downtown Tampa Community Redevelopment Area program.

That tax generates up to $10 million to $14 million a year and could be used to raise about $100 million through issuing stadium bonds.

Other sources of possible money include a stadium naming rights contract and a federal program called EB-5, in which wealthy immigrants essentially buy a visa by promising to invest $500,000 or $1 million in a job-creating project in the United States.

Buckhorn admitted that Tampa and Hillsborough County simply might not be able to find enough money for a new ballpark and may have to scrap the idea.

Either way, both he and Hagan insisted taxpayers will not bear most of the costs.

“There will never be another arrangement like Raymond James Stadium, where the taxpayer bears the burden,” Buckhorn said.

Buckhorn and Hagan plan to create a committee to meet with the Rays and ask about the team’s stadium needs. They haven’t determined the committee’s makeup, but it might include Buckhorn and Hagan, as well as private businesspeople and members of the Tampa Sports Authority and Tampa Bay Partnership economic development group, Hagan said this week.

It probably won’t include any elected officials from St. Petersburg or Pinellas County, though.

Community leaders repeatedly have called for regional talks with the Rays, featuring leaders from both sides of Tampa Bay. The idea was to prevent a battle between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to lure the team.

That was the model the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce used two years ago when it created a stadium financing caucus to figure out how to pay for a new Rays ballpark. It invited the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce to particpate as an equal partner in the stadium caucus to prevent any cross-bay rivalry.

However, both Buckhorn and Hagan were noncommittal on the subject Friday.

Hagan said he doesn’t want the committee to have so many members that it becomes unwieldy. Buckhorn said leaders in Hillsborough know best what Tampa has to offer.

“If they’re (the Rays) looking at sites in Hillsborough County, we are best suited to help them with that,” Buckhorn said.

Hagan said he expects to meet with Hillsborough County’s attorney next week about the process of speaking with the Rays. Both men said they can’t do anything until St. Petersburg officially amends the team’s contract to allow it to look for stadium locations in Hillsborough.

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Twitter: @msasso

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