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Saturday, Nov 18, 2017
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Regional sports authority floated for Rays stadium

TAMPA - If the Tampa Bay Rays get a new ballpark, the team might need the entire area to help fund it. That's a tricky idea, but it's one that a stadium committee made up of the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce is exploring. The idea is to create a regional sports authority similar to the Tampa Sports Authority that would oversee any new baseball stadium. So far, it hasn't gone beyond the idea stage, and it might have a tough time getting buy-in from the Florida Legislature. Still, a regional authority might draw from a much larger tax base than any single city or county and put a bigger dent into a stadium's $500-$600 million cost.
A regional authority would be necessary for county tax dollars to go to a stadium in another county. A big question: would people be willing to support a stadium on the other side of the bay? "Let's say it's located in Pinellas," said Eric Hart, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority. "How do you get people in Hillsborough and Pasco to pay for it?" A chamber of commerce group, the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus, has been talking with city and county leaders on both sides of the bay lately to figure out how to pay for a new ballpark. It has no legislative powers, so it would need politicians to champion its ideas. A few weeks ago, caucus members chatted about the regional sports authority idea with Hart. His agency, the Tampa Sports Authority, operates Raymond James Stadium and issued some of the debt for the football stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum, but it doesn't have taxing power. The idea has more questions right now than answers. For example, a state program can help offset the cost of a new stadium by diverting $2 million a year in sales taxes toward the stadium for 30 years. That fund already helps pay off Tropicana Field. Could a new regional sports authority tap into that money for a new ballpark?, asks Bob Rohrlack, chief executive of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Another question is whether to create a new sports authority or just expand the Tampa Sports Authority to encompass the entire area. A major advantage of a regional authority, of course, is it might be able to tax a much larger base than just a single city or county. Caucus members say it's not clear if such a local authority would even have the power to tax. Denver operates something similar, with state-run football and baseball taxing districts that levy a one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax in six counties. That six-county tax brings in about $38 million a year. A major sticking point to doing that in the Tampa Bay area is getting the Legislature to champion it. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he sees no appetite for creating any new authority with the power to tax or issue debt in this economy. Plus, the players in the stadium debate may want some resolution to the controversy before legislators could create a sports authority, said Mark Wimberly, co-chairman of the chamber stadium caucus. "This is not something you can pull together in a couple months," he said. "It would take a concerted effort in working with the state Legislature."

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