Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Rays Stadium Saga: What's Next?

Another Rays season is off and running...but if the team doesn't right its ship on the field soon, Tampa Bay's attention could shift quickly to their off-the-field matters. Namely, their search for a new stadium.

But despite three-plus years of exploration, negotiation, and intimidation, we don't appear any closer to a long-term solution to the team's problems than we did in 2008.

So what's next?

Contrary to the timeline I mapped out two years ago, I actually think things will remain civil for a while longer.

Given the economy, it would be in poor taste for the Rays or MLB to push the issue any harder right now. But they will eventually.

The next major piece of news will likely come from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, a private group studying the difficult issue of stadium funding.

The group is decidedly pro-stadium and although it isn't advocating a preferred site right now, location won't matter as much as how they could possibly pool the $300 million in public revenue to get a deal done.

In an ideal world, multiple counties around Tampa Bay would contribute to a new stadium to lock up the team for decades to come. But cooperation has never been Tampa Bay's strongest characteristic and most residents balk at the idea of paying for a stadium in a different county.

I also expect the report to suggest a diverse range of public funding mechanisms from Tax-Increment Funding (TIFs) to Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs). These are easy pills for politicians to swallow since they don't immediately increase tax rates for most residents.

However, both TIFs and PILOTs are both taxes, and with an anti-tax climate permeating the state and anti-tax politicians holding most important county offices, even these mechanisms may not fly.

So while the Rays may hail the suggestion as innovative, local municipalities still may not "play ball" if they don't have to. And honestly, I don't expect St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster to open his city's wallet when they've already got the Rays under a fool-proof contract until 2027.

Which means 2011 may look a lot like 2010 in the Stadium Saga. A report comes out; the team and politicians go through their song-and-dance with the media; and nothing changes.

As I've said before, this process will likely play itself out over a number of years, not months. And it will undoubtedly get tense, if not ugly.

The lone bright spot for the Rays' efforts is new Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been a stadium advocate and may give them the power and/or leverage they need to get the ball rolling. How active he wants to be could determine how quickly the Stadium Saga plays out.

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