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Who wants to trade? Hillsborough offers to swap land with Ybor-area property owners for potential Rays ballpark

TAMPA — Trades are common when assembling a professional baseball team. Apparently, they're also useful when assembling land for a professional ballpark.

Hillsborough County hopes to build a Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in the Channel District-Ybor City area, and is offering property owners there a chance to exchange their parcels for government-controlled land near the downtown area.

A draft option agreement between the county and private property owners says landlords can swap their coveted parcels for county-owned "real property of lesser or equal value to the purchase price" in the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area or the Ybor City Redevelopment Area.

The document, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request, was written in March by an outside legal team the county hired to oversee ballpark negotiations. The draft agreement describes the terms for acquiring the land for a "neighborhood ballpark" that could be executed in the event the Rays decide to move from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

County Attorney Chip Fletcher confirmed that land exchanges are on the table as a means to lower the sales price of property assembled for a ballpark.

"If we reach agreement with somebody and we can reduce the purchase price by leveraging property we have, that's advantageous to the county from a business perspective," Fletcher said.

NARROWING IN: Tampa officials focusing on Channel District-Ybor for potential Rays ballpark

In addition to property the county owns and operates outright, Fletcher said they could also dangle tax-delinquent properties that are typically auctioned to the highest bidder.

Local politicians are aware of the diminishing appetite for pumping public dollars into a stadium, thus the interest in trading property instead of giving landowners cash. Officials have considered allocating tourism tax dollars collected at hotels, but it's very unlikely the county would call for a sales tax hike to pay for a stadium, as they did to build Raymond James Stadium.

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The rising cost of building sports facilities mixed with the current political climate have forced communities to consider a basket of funding sources that are sometimes outside-the-box, said David Abrams, professor at New York University's Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media and Business. Land swaps, for years a staple of real estate and government development, are increasingly a piece of such strategies.

"The hard part is to come up with a funding algorithm or a method that gets you all the sources to get the project that you envision and done in a way that's sustainable," Abrams said. "Meaning, not only deliver a quality product but 15, 20, 30 years into the lease, everyone is still happy with the lease structure."

In the hands of developers, land formerly owned by the government in the downtown Tampa and Ybor redevelopment districts would also produce tax revenue for the county.

"The goal is to create an economic development district and have the additional revenue generated by the development help to finance the county's infrastructure," said County Commissioner Ken Hagan, the commission's point man on the Rays ballpark search. "The more that we can put on the (tax) rolls, obviously that helps to make the numbers work."

Assembling the land that can fit a ballpark has proven more difficult than anticipated. For months, the county has focused on acquiring parcels in the Ybor area, but some landowners are so far unwilling to sell or make a deal.

These difficulties have pushed the county to once again consider other options in West Shore, the Times recently reported.

BAD OMEN?: Trouble obtaining land for Rays ballpark near downtown Tampa may push search to West Shore

The inventory of county land in downtown Tampa and Ybor includes high-use buildings like the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Frederick B. Karl County Center that are unlikely to change hands, but also a handful of parking lots and warehouses on the east side of downtown Tampa.

The Sheriff's Office has generated some buzz because of its desirable location in the heart of Ybor and its proximity to land controlled by Darryl Shaw, the chief executive officer of BluePearl Veterinary Partners, and his business partners. The county is eying other Shaw properties in the area north of the Ybor Channel on the eastern edge of the Channel District for a potential ballpark.

Fletcher said exchanging the Sheriff's Office "doesn't seem financially feasible." County Administrator Mike Merrill threw cold water on the idea as well.

The city of Tampa owns much more land in the discussed areas, and county officials are hopeful the city can pitch in some property to a deal to acquire the parcels for an urban ballpark.

"Certainly, any way that the city could contribute, whether it's parking related or being involved in a land swap, that would go a long way toward reducing the infrastructure cost associated with the project," Hagan said.

That's news to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"I have no idea what they're referring to," he said. "I don't even know if they've identified parcels that we may or may not own that somebody may be interested in. That entire scenario is news to me."

Buckhorn said no one has approached the city about swapping land. He could see talking about closing city-owned streets. He also noted that the city owns a couple of pieces of property — the Tampa Park Plaza Playground and a triangular 1.5-acre piece of property where Nebraska Avenue and Nick Nuccio Parkway split. City ordinances would require voter approval through a referendum to sell the park.

More generally, Buckhorn said that a potential land swap is just one of the kinds of things that are going to have to be considered to find, secure, finance and develop a ballpark site.

"If this deal is going to occur," he said, "it's going to have to be really creative."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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