TAMPA — A potential piece of the funding puzzle for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark is back on the table after Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration — with help from Gov. Rick Scott — persuaded federal officials to put an Ybor City census tract on the list for a new federal tax break.
Buckhorn and the city’s top economic development official insist that the economic opportunity zone designation isn’t necessarily tied to the Rays. The area that includes the proposed ballpark site is in need of an economic boost anyway, they said.
"The renaissance of Ybor isn’t quite done yet. There is still a fair amount of work to be done," said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s economic opportunity administrator.
The work likely got easier with the new designation, allowing developers and private investors within the zone to delay tax payments on profits from the sale of real estate and other investments if they roll that money into Ybor City.
"It means good things for Ybor City in general," Buckhorn said. "That census tract links Ybor City to Channelside. It was important it wasn’t left out."
But Tract 39, as it is called, wasn’t on the original list of 427 sites around Florida submitted by the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity to the federal government in April. The state received more than 1,200 requests from municipalities and counties around Florida.
The tract covers about 409 acres northeast of Channelside Drive and Adamo Drive and includes the ballpark site.
Buckhorn, who has forged a good working relationship with Scott, appealed to state officials to change their minds and they did.
"They were very supportive," Buckhorn said. The change was finalized last month.
Tampa was one of a number of communities — in Florida and in other states — to request a swap, said Tiffany Vause, spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity. The Treasury Department allowed time to change nominations.
"Several local governments requested to swap one of their nominated tracts for a different preferred tract in their community. Many other states submitted similar requests, and Treasury provided time for the remaining states pending certification to change their nominations," she wrote in an email.
The Rays declined comment on the designation. Team officials said recently they will make a decision by early next year on whether the Ybor City site will work.
Economic-opportunity zones were created under tax-cut legislation proposed by President Donald Trump and approved by Congress this year.
To get the Ybor parcel back in the state mix, Buckhorn proposed swapping it with another census tract around Armenia and Hillsborough avenues.
City officials argued that the Ybor tract had the potential to generate hundreds more jobs. Hillsborough County officials agreed.
County officials have said that private investment will be crucial to helping pay for an Ybor City ballpark likely to cost in the neighborhood of $800 million.
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg has said the team will kick in around $150 million, possibly more if it gets lucrative naming rights deals or other benefits.
Private investment was a financial building block in the deal to develop Sun Trust Park for the Atlanta Braves, the newest major-league ballpark.
Battery Atlanta, an office, residential and entertainment complex, was built at a cost of about $400 million adjacent to the ballpark in suburban Cobb County. Revenue from the complex helps the team pay off construction bonds on the stadium.
Whether or not the Atlanta project serves as a model for the Rays, the federal action means Ybor City benefits either way.
"I don’t know if it necessarily ties into a ballpark or not," McDonaugh said, "but it is an area that we recognized could benefit from redevelopment."