Saturday, November 17, 2018
News Roundup

Joe Henderson: Road to new Rays stadium will be a wild ride

About two seconds after the $892 million price tag for the Tampa Bay Rays proposed stadium in Ybor City was revealed, I’d bet more than a few people thought, "Well … buh-bye."

Montreal? Charlotte? Nashville? Las Vegas?

The Planet Zortron?

Anywhere but here.

It does seem like it will take an extraordinary amount of hat-passing to raise the coin needed to pay for this thing, but if you’re a Rays’ supporter and think there must be a way to get this thing built — take heart.

History is on your side.

Around this time 22 years ago, it looked for all the world like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were leaving town.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE Rays’ Ybor stadium revealed: Translucent roof, $892 million price tag

Then-owner Malcolm Glazer’s demand for a new stadium seemed to be going nowhere. Glazer forgot his promise to pay "about half" (a direct quote) the cost of the project, and his increasing demands for concessions from the city and county seemed calculated to set the stage for moving vans at One Buc Place.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE Stu Sternberg: Tampa Bay Rays’ share of Ybor ballpark will be more than $150 million

There was even a false radio report that the Bucs had a deal to move to Cleveland. It sent reporters stampeding here from northern Ohio in what was a colossal waste of time and money for all involved. But it gave local politicians an added sense of urgency, since none of them wanted to be tagged for losing the Bucs on their watch.

A negotiating group that included then-Mayor Dick Greco kept saying yes to Glazer until he ran out of things to ask for, but there was still the question of how to pay for it.

County Commissioner Joe Chillura eventually got the Community Investment Tax on the ballot, leaving the issue squarely up to the people. It was a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for roads, schools, police, other services … aaaaaaaand, something they called "A Community Stadium."

I always got a good laugh about that.

The same measure, without the stadium, failed soundly a year before. With the stadium, it passed 53-47 percent in a record voter turnout. It was a solid victory.

What does this have to do with the Rays and their hopes to land in Ybor?

Maybe a lot.

First, it would be foolish to underestimate how much lawmakers in Tampa want to make this happen, but they will be smart about it. They must be. Ray-Jay’s base price was capped at $168.5 million. This project is more than five times that amount.

Most of them remember the backlash that still resonates over the giveaway lease to the Bucs. Former Mayor Bill Poe even sued to have it overturned after the referendum passed.

Any financing plan will have to be accompanied by the framework of a lease with the Rays. That will be a well-studied document. The city and county will go hard after hotel tax money, maybe rental cars, and whatever other fees they can find that are paid by tourists.

You can count on ticket surcharges, too, and maybe a special taxing district where the revenue generated by development around the stadium will go toward the cost.

You also can expect a lot of bluster out of Tallahassee about using any public money at all for the stadium. It’s really not a good time for municipalities to be asking state lawmakers for cash to build a sports stadium.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE Rays unveil their plans for an Ybor City ballpark: All our coverage of the stadium

There will be days when it looks like this thing is doomed.

There will be reports and rumors about the Rays and other cities.

Most of these same issues were in play 22 years ago though, and I’ve always believed enough of the community decided that having professional football was important.

Having the Rays is important too.

Can we afford them? I guess we’ll find out.

But I believe the community really wants them, and that’s not a bad place to start.

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