Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is St. Pete Really Ready to Let Rays Look in Tampa?

Lots of action in the papers this week as St. Pete's city attorneys reportedly met with Rays officials to try and close the "large gap" in their stances on the Stadium Stalemate.  Meanwhile, Hillsborough Commission Chair Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn say they're "ready to talk" stadium if the opportunity arises (not that you needed to be told that).

But some important questions remain about what this development means - if it is, in fact, a development:

Who will flip in St. Pete?
Mayor Bill Foster has maintained he has an "open door" policy with the Rays and is always ready to talk.  But he has always maintained he cannot let the Rays look at stadium sites in Tampa because it only increases the team's legal leverage and half of the city council has followed his lead.  Without a councilmember flipping his or her vote, it won't matter what kind of agreement the lawyers can hammer out.

"Once there is a kink in the armor, it opens up the floodgates," St. Pete councilman Bill Dudley told the Tampa Tribune.  "We have to be real careful as far as I am concerned."

How close is an agreement in reality?
We know how the Trib and Times love to sell papers with giant Rays headlines above the fold, but how much is hype and how much is reality?  St. Pete's top attorney, John Wolfe, said an agreement is "a long way off."  And it's not a surprise - how does a city guarantee the Rays' promise to consider Pinellas County stadium sites is anything more than lip service?

What will St. Pete get out of letting the Rays look?
The Trib indicates any contract amendment will "restate that the Rays are under contract to play at the Trop through 2027," even though the contract already says that.  The last suggestion from St. Pete Councilman Charlie Gerdes would let the Rays explore non-Pinellas stadium sites for $1.4 million a year.  Will Stu Sternberg open his checkbook for the right to break the Stadium Stalemate?

How independent will the study be?
In the words of Mark Twain, "There are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  Pro sports teams are experts in making a statistic say anything they want, so if the City of St. Pete wanted to guarantee fairness in future population and location studies conducted, maybe it should mandate the study not be done by a firm of the Rays' choice, but an independent third-party like USF or the University of Florida?

Who will pay for a stadium?
Remember, location has never been the biggest challenge here.  Finding a method to pay for a stadium has always been the big challenge.  It's not often a conservative (Hagan) and a liberal (Buckhorn) agree on major projects like this, but the two Tampa-area politicians seem to be lock-step on the stadium issue.

"While each said a Bucs-style stadium deal based on a voter-approved tax increase is out of the question," wrote the Times, "Buckhorn and Hagan did say some forms of public participation are possible."

Hagan has previously said he would consider using TIF money to help finance a stadium, and now suggests EB-5 investment money too.  But TIF money - which is, in fact, tax dollars - might not break that $100 million mark and EB-5 bonding is typically short-term and very limited.

Buckhorn and Hagan indicated their roles in any discussion may be better-served as leaders of a group, rather than as financiers.  According to the Times:
Hagan said envisions forming a group with himself, Buckhorn, as well as perhaps representatives of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Tampa Sports Authority — “maybe a four- or five-person group.”

Buckhorn said he would expect the group to include himself, Hagan, top city development official Bob McDonaugh, County Administrator Mike Merrill, perhaps Tampa Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick and perhaps Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who owns substantial real estate holdings near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Let's forget for a moment that Vinik's participation in a search committee could present a major conflict of interest.  And forget the fact that this group would likely need to meet behind closed doors to negotiate anything substantial.

If the Rays' ability to look at Hillsborough opens up the conversation about stadium funding, this news can be positive step forward.  But if only serves to sway public opinion on the issue, these rumors are just another chapter in the Stadium Saga that ultimately gives the Rays an edge in the public game of creating leverage


  1. Does Vinnik reallly have a conflict of interest? The Lightning and Rays schedules don't overlap that much. A baseball stadium in downtown Tampa would be good for Vinnik's properties.

    1. Which is why he couldn't be an impartial part of a search committee.

    2. Not to mention he is a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox still.

  2. Buckhorn is like a little kid. He wants a billion dollar stadium, a multi-billion dollar light rail, and he wants to continue with the Invision Tampa plan that comes along with many high priced improvements. Where exactly does he plan on getting this money when the city continues to have budget shortfalls? He wants to borrow money and kick the can down the road for future politicians to deal with. At that time he will probably be running for Gov.