Although there's been considerable play in the local press about possible locations for a new stadium — including a proposal for a stadium in St. Pete's Carillon Parkway area, the most concrete plan that surfaced two months ago — what's been missing from the discussion is serious attention about how it might be funded (team ownership said it will commit up to as much as one third of the total costs).
Enter the Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus. The group was formed in the summer of 2011 to come up with possible sources for financing a new ballpark for the Rays, who despite a fifth consecutive winning season, drew an average of less than 20,000 fans a game — the worst in all of Major League Baseball.
On Monday, the group's work was presented to the public, with Chuck Sykes from the Tampa Chamber giving a detailed 45-minute presentation to members of the media at the Chamber's headquarters in downtown Tampa.
"We don't have a lot of time," Sykes said with urgency. "Despite the fact that we've got a lease that goes out to 2027, here's where we see the concern: You've got almost 60 percent of the debt that's going to be paid off by 2016."
He specifically mentioned that two major sources of funding that have been going toward paying off the debt for Tropicana Field, the Tourist Development Tax and and First Florida Government Financing, will be expiring. He said this gives Pinellas more "opportunity costs." With those taxes expiring in a few years, Sykes emphasized that the conversation needs to begin now, as some citizens will want those funds to be redirected into parks or other areas.
"Opportunity Costs" are defined by the Caucus as revenues that could potentially take away from current or future local programs. In Hillsborough County, that could mean redirecting some Community Investment Tax toward another program. The Caucus also suggested that tax incremental financing could be another source of funding in the Tampa area (something that has already been suggested by Hillsborough County Chairman Ken Hagan).
Sykes began the presentation by saying that ideal attendance for the club would be approximately 30,000, with a bare minimum of 26,000-27,000. The Rays drew 19,255 in 2012.
Working without financials provided by the team (and instead relying on leaked materials of the team's 2007 and 2008 financial statements that landed on the Internet), Sykes said the Caucus spoke with officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Major League Baseball, the front offices of other MLB teams, and developers and people in the construction industry to come up with their data. Sykes said the numbers project what it would take to fund a stadium with a capacity of about 35,000-37,000 — similar to the current size of Tropicana Field with thousands of seats blocked off because the Rays never sell out (full capacity is more than 41,000).
Among other potentials sources of income is the HB-5 Visa program, which Sykes said contributed nearly $250 million toward funding The Barclays, the new arena in Brooklyn that is the home to the NBA's New Jersey Nets. That program, which the Tampa City Council's Yolie Capin has been holding hearings on, allows foreign nationals to essentially buy their way into citizenship by paying either $500,000 or $1 million for developments that bring new jobs to the U.S. Sykes said the only caveat about that type of financing is that it must be paid off quicker than other type of financial deals (five to six years). He said this could ideally be more of a "bridge" financing plan.
Potential sources of income in Pinellas could also come from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The Caucus modestly put in $6 million, though Sykes admitted that's just a figure that isn't too large or too small, but such a decision would probably have to come through Pinellas citizens and their lawmakers.
Another source of income could come from selling the land where Tropicana Field is currently located, but Sykes said that possibility is so uncertain that the group did not include any funding resulting in its sale.
Political hurdles are perhaps the biggest obstacle right now. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg made it clear he'd like to be free to negotiate with any interested developer in the Tampa Bay area, but St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster stubbornly insisted that it's not acceptable, and that they can only negotiate inside the city of St. Pete.
Sykes said the fact that the respective Chambers of Commerce for Tampa and St. Pete are working together shows that cooperation between different entities in the Bay area is the only thing that can keep the Rays in the region.
"Look, you can't deny the facts. We've got a great team but we have an attendance problem," he said. You can argue whether it's the stadium or not. A lot of people think it is. But you have numbers on the board right now of two parties that are willing to achieve certain things, and I just think they need to get into a room and just talk."
Sykes said he hopes to bring all the interested parties together.
"It's a complicated, difficult issue," he said.
Yes it is. Last month, the city of St. Petersburg announced that it would sue Hillsborough County if its government discussed stadium issues with any member of the Rays organization.
The Rays accepted an invitation to brief the Hillsborough County Commission back in August, but no official date has been set for representatives of the team's management to appear.