Joe Henderson: In Rays baseball stadium saga, slammed doors can still be opened

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The prevailing sentiment is that the door is slammed shut on a baseball stadium in Ybor City for the Tampa Bay Rays. You heard it on TV, radio and just about everywhere else throughout the region.

After all, the Rays seemed to emphatically make that point when the team informed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman that it would not seek to extend an agreement that allowed the team to negotiate with Hillsborough County.

While it may be true, for now, that the Rays’ best option for a new baseball stadium to keep them in the area is in Pinellas County, it is premature to say Hillsborough is finished. And it certainly is wrong to say it’s the team’s only option.

With the Rays committing to play at Tropicana Field through the end of their lease in 2027, there is nothing to stop Hillsborough — and other cities, outside of Florida — from continuing to work on a stadium package the team might accept.

When the lease is over, the Rays could simply walk into a better deal without all the current drama. It would probably take nearly that long to get the money, clear all the legal hurdles, and then actually build the stadium anyway.

“I think what happened is that we (Hillsborough) have been given time,” Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate Harry Cohen said. “If they’re going to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, everything is on the table.

“I don’t think what happened is the end. I think it’s a pause.”

Fellow Council member Mike Suarez, who also is running for Mayor, agreed.

“I don’t think the door is slammed shut,” he said. “Any business owner, and the Rays are a business, will try to maximize their advantage. Their disadvantage before was time.”

Indeed, the public didn’t learn until early July that the Ybor stadium would cost $892 million. Hillsborough officials had less than six months to put together a complicated financing package that would appeal to the Rays and Major League Baseball.

With large-scale use of tax money almost certainly off the table, Hillsborough officials floated the idea of using so-called Opportunity Zones to help pay for the project. The concept, which was part of the Republican 2017 tax package, allows investors to divert corporate capital gains into projects like the proposed Ybor stadium.

The problem is, the idea is so new that no one is quite sure how it works — including the IRS. The delay gives Hillsborough, and any other location, time to explore specifics on that idea and seek investors.

The original agreement with St. Petersburg that allowed the Rays to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough expires at the end of this month.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said that despite the recent turn of events, work on finding a solution in Tampa will continue. Of the Rays’ decision, Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times, “I don’t think it’s a very big deal at all. We weren’t expecting any last-minute Hail Mary’s.”

Now, there is time to put together a package that could work, and actually, the clock is ticking down on St. Petersburg to either come up with its own stadium proposal the Rays would accept or negotiate a new agreement that would allow the team to re-open talks in Hillsborough.

“Clearly, there remain some elected officials in St. Pete that don’t see the big picture,” Hagan told the Times.

And so, it continues.

The mistake people make when following projects like this is over-reaction to incremental developments. Building a stadium like this one is a massive, complicated undertaking for any city. It is filled with politics, starts, stops, unexpected detours, and frustrations on both sides.

Often these projects seem dead, only to reappear in a different form but the with the same goal.

Does that mean the Rays eventually will play in new Hillsborough baseball stadium?

Of course not.

But it doesn’t mean they won’t, either.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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