TAMPA — Officials trying to lure the Tampa Bay Rays across the water are aggressively working to secure a site for a ballpark in the Channel District-Ybor City area, and hope to make an announcement soon.
Hillsborough County and its lawyers have had dozens of conversations this year with the Rays, its financing team at Goldman Sachs and Populous, the architect for the new ballpark, according to legal records. They've discussed financing options, reviewed sites and compared economic development proposals.
More recently, they have spoken with land owners about assembling a package of parcels that can fit a ballpark, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan confirmed recently. And they're looking to the Atlanta Braves for ideas on how to pay for it.
At the same time, direct talks with the Rays front office have slowed during the dog days of the baseball season and a hotly contested St. Petersburg mayoral race. Lawyers for the county spoke with the Rays front office 24 times between February and March, but only eight times in the three months after, according to invoices from Foley and Lardner, the law firm the county hired to spearhead the site search and negotiations.
And there is lingering frustration the team has not demonstrated enough urgency in its search for a new ballpark.
"The team has been arguing for a new home for eight-plus years," Hagan said. "It doesn't need to take years to create the partnership required for a new ballpark, but it does take leadership at the ownership level to get us across the finish line."
As recently as late July, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said the team was waiting for Tampa and Hillsborough County to present a viable option and challenged them to "completely weigh in."
"When they do then we'll be able to make a decision in a pretty quick time," he said.
Such dueling sentiments echo a rift first unveiled earlier this year. During spring training, Sternberg acknowledged that the team's top fives sites for a ballpark were not available. Three were in Tampa, including the Heights, a 43-acre mixed-use project taking shape in downtown Tampa along a bend in the Hillsborough River.
At the time, Hagan shot back that the team was too slow to act and let those sites get away.
Since then, whether by choice or necessity, Hillsborough officials have tried to identify a site behind the scenes while the Rays have stayed relatively quiet. Monthly invoices show frequent contact with lawyers contracted by Foley and Lardner, a firm with extensive experience in stadium projects for which they earn a monthly $4,500 retainer and $325 an hour.
The officials are narrowing in on the Channel District-Ybor City area and have approached landowners about an option agreement that would secure the rights to those parcels if the Rays chose to move.
There are still moving pieces, Hagan cautioned, but "that fits perfectly in our belief that the ballpark needs to be in an urban environment. It also aligns with many of the Ray's guiding principles for their next ballpark."
"Our outside counsel has repeatedly said the next step is to get site control," Hagan said. "Once we have site control we can go public and hope to have that earnest dialogue on the location and get the community feedback on the possibilities that exist there."
The area south and east of a roundabout off Nuccio Parkway not far from the gates of Ybor City "has received a lot of attention," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "and I think it's appropriate." He wouldn't say it was the leading site, adding there were "other potential parcels," but said it's walkability to downtown, space for parking and access to the TECO streetcar line are an advantage.
"Far better," Buckhorn said, than the area in Ybor east of the revamped 22nd Street, another rumored site.
An investor group led by BluePearl Veterinary Services CEO Darryl Shaw has bought quite a few sizable parcels off Nuccio Parkway and the surrounding area in recent years, with the largest flurry of activity coming in the past 18 months. TECO and a couple of investment firms out of New York own some land there as well.
Shaw did not respond to a request for comment. Asked in April whether he spoke with the Rays brass about a particular parcel, the former gasification plant called Gas Worx, Shaw said, "they don't believe a ballpark can fit on that site."
But Buckhorn pointed out it could become a parking lot or support development.
Hagan said he also regularly meets with S. Kay Andrews, the publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin and the leader of the nonprofit that owns the Tampa Park Apartments. The housing complex, just west of Shaw's land near Ybor, is often mentioned as a potential future home for the Rays.
The Tampa Bay Times recently reportedly that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put the owners of Tampa Park Apartments on notice that they could lose their Section 8 rent subsidies after a substandard inspection.
The Rays have not publicly weighed in on potential Tampa locations for a ballpark, though Sternberg said in July that team leaders "have sites in mind." County Attorney Chip Fletcher said, "We've gotten some mixed messages on what the Rays think about our site options."
Hagan could not give a timeline on when the county might announce a potential site.
He anticipates, however, that the Rays don't want to be accused of influencing the St. Petersburg mayoral race and therefore won't weigh in on where they're going until it's over. The team is also in the middle of a competitive baseball season and negotiations over the rights to a new television contract.
If incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, former mayor Rick Baker or the other candidates don't get 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 29 election, it will go to a runoff in November.
In his conversations with the Rays, Hagan said he was told they don't believe the election will affect an agreement reached with Kriseman to allow the team three years to consider a new home in Hillsborough County.
The county may not wait until the Rays are ready to announce a site, Hagan said.
One area of near certainty is how the county would like to pay for a ballpark. Officials are hoping to mimic the pact between the Atlanta Braves and Cobb County, Ga., that led to the new SunTrust Park.
Cobb County borrowed $397 million to finance the stadium and the team contributed $230 million.
The public-private partnership relied on the potential growth in taxes collected on development and entertainment around the stadium. The new ballpark is just a piece of a massive development and entertainment district around the new Braves home for fans and a growing community.
Hagan and county Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Wise visited with the Braves front office in April.
"It really is the model for future ballparks and the important thing is the paradigm for stadium financing continues to include increased team participation," Hagan said. "The days of 100 percent taxpayer funded stadiums are long gone."
Sternberg and the Rays have not recently said whether they want a stake in development around the ballpark. The concept is certainly en vogue among owners looking to capitalize on entertainment expenses before and after games, as well as the growth from people who want to live, work and play near a stadium, especially in urban cores. You don't have to look far for an example: It's exactly what Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is building around Amalie Arena.
"The only way that people who live here pay is by attending a game or going to bars and restaurants around the stadium or have a home or business in that district," County Administrator Mike Merrill said. "But it's all hopefully generating even more revenue, and is an asset that's bringing more for the community, not less."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.