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Trouble obtaining land for Rays ballpark near downtown Tampa may push search to West Shore

TAMPA — It is proving harder than expected to put together the land needed for a Tampa Bay Rays ballpark near downtown Tampa, and now local officials are exploring another option in the West Shore area.

But even if all the pieces come together, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he is less confident than ever that the county and Rays ownership can come to an agreement on how to pay for a ballpark that would lure the team from St. Petersburg.

"There's no question this has been an extremely challenging and frustrating process that in my opinion shouldn't be this difficult of a task," Hagan, the county commission's point man on the negotiations, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Some landowners in the Channel District-Ybor City region — for months the focal point of the Tampa ballpark site search — are so far unmoved by offers from Hillsborough County to acquire their property. The thorny negotiations put in peril two coveted locations in that area, Hagan said, though he declined to identify the exact location of those sites.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa officials focusing on Channel District-Ybor for potential Rays ballpark

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Stu Sternberg: Top choices for Rays new stadium are unavailable

The lack of progress has forced the county to look at another undisclosed site in West Shore, he said, the coastal community on Tampa's west side.

That area was previously considered and a consultant study once noted its appeal. St. Petersburg fans wouldn't have to drive as far as they would to a downtown Tampa ballpark, and it is close to the kind of corporate clients and support the Rays desperately crave.

"The demographics in the West Shore area are better than in downtown or Channelside or Ybor," Hagan said.

But broadening the hunt at this point — 22 months after St. Petersburg allowed the Rays to search for a new home away from Tropicana Field — can only be seen as a step backward for an effort many hoped would have been wrapped up by now.

Hagan once expressed optimism he could announce Tampa's preferred stadium location at the start of 2017. Now it's unclear if anything will be formalized by the end of this year.

The window for the Rays search closes in January 2019. Rays spokeswoman Rafaela Amador declined to comment.

In August, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the team can make a decision quickly once it hears Hillsborough County's pitch.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Sternberg: Rays ready to make 'quick' decision once they get stadium options

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to build a new stadium for the Rays on a redeveloped Tropicana Field. There may be other Pinellas County locations in play, too.

After a site is finalized, Tampa and county officials can begin talks with the Rays about how to finance it. The county's legal and financial teams have met with the Rays and their representatives at Goldman Sachs, but without an actual site, there's not much to discuss.

In previous public statements, Rays brass and county officials were far apart on how much each side should pay for the new facility.

Local officials narrowed in on the area between downtown Tampa and Ybor City because it checks several boxes for the Rays: local authenticity (its near the home of Al Lopez, Tampa's first professional baseball Hall of Famer, and the historic Ybor neighborhood); connection to transportation (the TECO street car, the Selmon Expressway and Interstate 275 ); and it is ripe for development (near the planned Water Street Tampa project and new construction in Ybor).

If the site can get close enough to the Ybor Channel, it could open a ballpark to water transportation and maybe even seaside views.

Tim Leiweke, a former professional sports franchise executive who has had a hand in building 18 arenas in North America, recently told the Times that he strongly recommends cities build stadiums close to their downtowns.

"When you build a stadium away from an urban core, that's a mistake," Leiweke said.

But county officials are dealing with multiple landowners there, making negotiations especially complicated. One of the largest players is Darryl Shaw, the chief executive officer of BluePearl Veterinary Services, who with other investors has spent millions of dollars in recent years buying property throughout Ybor City.

BIG DEALS: Darryl Shaw is quiet, humble - and $63 million later, Ybor's big new player

The county wants landowners to approve an option agreement for their parcels that would be executed in the event the Rays decide to leave St. Petersburg.

Hagan acknowledged that Shaw is one of the individuals in negotiations with the county. Shaw, who Hagan called a shrewd businessman and "one of the nicest guys I've ever met," did not respond to phone calls from the Times.

"It keeps dragging on and on," Hagan said. "But I'm hopeful. The baseball season is over. I think we're getting closer."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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