A Hillsborough County commissioner raised the stakes Wednesday in the undeclared war between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties over which will be the future home of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team.
Commissioner Ken Hagan, at a budget workshop, asked whether the county could declare a potential stadium site a community redevelopment area, which would make it available for a type of financing that could be used for roads, water and sewer lines there.
"While I know it's not the intent, it could be a tool to help meet the infrastructure needs of a baseball stadium," Hagan said.
The funding mechanism, called tax increment financing, uses money derived from increases in property values in that area.
County Administrator Mike Merrill agreed that tax increment financing had been part of the package that built the new Yankee Stadium, along with payments by the Yankees in lieu of taxes and "a lot of private money."
"That was kind of a turning point in building stadiums," Merrill said. "It was around that time that the dynamics started to shift to more private money going in, and that was really a reflection of the downturn in the economy."
Hagan raised the question about the ballpark after Merrill told commissioners he wants to create a community redevelopment area around the Florida State Fairgrounds, which has been mentioned by local promoters as a possible site for a new Rays stadium.
The area would be perfect for tax increment financing, Merrill said, because of the 8 million to 10 million people who pass through, many on their way to fairgrounds events or the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
The area, east of Tampa, is near several major roads, including Interstates 4 and 75, U.S. 301 and Orient Road.
Commissioner Les Miller, who had earlier voiced support for a redevelopment area around the fairgrounds, objected to Hagan linking the proposal to a baseball stadium. The fairgrounds area is in Miller's District 3, and includes some low-income neighborhoods.
"The transportation and road problems out there are enormous. … I wasn't talking about a baseball stadium," Miller said.
Hagan later said that the county's infrastructure needs would be the first priority if a redevelopment district was created.
He conceded later he asked the question because he's frustrated with St. Petersburg's refusal to allow the Rays to look for a new stadium site, either in Pinellas or Hillsborough County. St. Petersburg has a contract that ties the Rays to Tropicana Field until 2027.
"I think we do need to revive the discussion," Hagan said, "and frankly I'm growing impatient waiting for the Rays and St. Pete to work on an agreement that will allow discussions to take place.
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The Hillsborough commissioner has been the most outspoken local official to advocate bringing the Rays across Tampa Bay. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio refused to become embroiled in the dispute between the Rays and St. Petersburg.
Hagan insists his only motivation in stirring the pot is to prevent the Rays from leaving the Tampa Bay area.
The Rays' ownership has made it clear they will not stay in Tropicana Field through the life of the contract.
As recently as last week, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg spoke of the reluctance of Hillsborough residents to drive to St. Petersburg for games, calling the waters of Tampa Bay "a big divide."
The Rays' owner has also said the team's attendance level - 29th out of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball - is unsustainable. He blames the low turnout on the dated, domed "Trop" and its location in southern Pinellas County.
The Rays declined to comment on Hagan's remarks Wednesday.
Sternberg's stance puts him in a standoff with St. Petersburg officials, who refuse to let the team out of the contract.
Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday that he met with the Rays' owner about a month ago, and the only conclusion at the end of the one-hour meeting was that "neither position has changed."
Foster called Hagan and others' argument that a stadium in Tampa would keep the Rays in the area "overrated." He accused the Hillsborough commissioner of trying to "exacerbate" the impasse between St. Petersburg and the Rays.
"They will talk about how much they respect St. Petersburg and how they won't interfere, but they still talk about it," Foster said. "The only parties that need to be talking about this are the city of St. Petersburg and the Rays."
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Hagan also discussed the stadium issue with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn over drinks Monday night. Buckhorn said he told Hagan that the city of Tampa would be the best site for a new baseball stadium, but only if there were a "divorce" between St. Petersburg and the Rays.
Buckhorn also agreed with Hagan that tax increment financing would be a vital piece of any stadium package because it would not entail a new tax on recession-weary residents.
"I've also said consistently the deals that have been done recently for Major League Baseball stadiums have consisted of owners' money, private equity and the possibility of the local jurisdiction doing some of the infrastructure work around the site," Buckhorn said.