City Could Contribute for Ray’s Stadium

A Chamber of Commerce task force studying baseball stadium financing recently asked Tampa City Hall what it could contribute, in theory, to a new ballpark.

The answer: $90 million to $100 million — or about a fifth of the estimated $500 million cost of similar projects elsewhere.

That’s how much the city has told the chamber-created Baseball Stadium Financing Caucus it might be able to raise, presumably in the form of a 20-year bond issue.

The city’s debt on the Tampa Convention Center is scheduled to be paid off in 2015. Then the city expects to have about $12.5 million a year available for downtown improvements, and that money could be used to repay stadium-related bonds. But here’s a big caveat: Tampa hasn’t said it would put the money toward a stadium, only that it could.

“We were very, very clear that it was no promises, no commitment,” Tampa chief financial officer Sonya Little said.

The caucus has talked to St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County officials, too, and expects to have similar conversations with Pinellas County officials.

Led by Chuck Sykes, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce last year started the private effort to investigate ways to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the region. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce joined the effort in May.

“What we’re looking at is how to pay for a stadium,” said Jeff Hearn, a Raymond James senior vice president who chairs the finance structure committee of the caucus. “We’re investigating the various opportunities both in the private and in the public sector.”

What the caucus is not doing, Hearn said, is looking at possible locations for a new stadium.

Sykes met last week with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who did not offer the kind of estimate that Tampa officials provided.

“We do not foresee (doing) that right now based on existing revenues,” Merrill said.

Merrill said he talked with Sykes about how the county helped finance the St. Pete Times Forum, Raymond James Stadium and Steinbrenner Field.

Those projects primarily relied on the Community Investment Tax, which sunsets in 2026 and would need to be reauthorized by voters to be extended, and the tourist tax, which Merrill said has little unused capacity.

In St. Petersburg, Hearn met about a month ago with Joe Zeoli, the managing director of St. Petersburg’s city development administration. Their discussion started with the existing financing for Tropicana Field, where the Rays now play.

Debt payments for Tropicana Field currently total nearly $13 million a year. Money to make those payments comes primarily from the city of St. Petersburg, county tourist taxes and state sales taxes.

Starting in 2017, debt service on the stadium drops to about $2 million a year. Those payments continue until 2026, and state sales taxes are expected to cover virtually all of those payments.

Zeoli and Hearn also touched on a few financing ideas, such as rental car taxes and parking surcharges, that had been brought up for the now-defunct proposal for a $450 million waterfront stadium for the Rays. They did not discuss the potential of those ideas for any new stadium.

Nor did they address the question of what the city’s bonding capacity could be for a future project. Still, Zeoli said he expects the caucus to circle back to the city in the future, and the question could come up then.

In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he will not interfere with St. Petersburg’s efforts to resolve whether the Rays will leave Tropicana Field before their contract there expires in 2027.

But Buckhorn says it’s prudent to be ready to move quickly if the Rays do leave St. Petersburg.

The money now going to the convention center’s debt is tied to the city’s downtown community redevelopment area, which means it can be spent only on downtown improvements. The potential stadium location that Buckhorn favors, just north of the St. Pete Times Forum, is in that redevelopment area.

While there is no expiration date for the redevelopment area itself, the financing plan for the $12.5 million a year now going to convention center debt sunsets in 2018, Little said. Extending the plan beyond that would require the approval of the Hillsborough County Commission.

Buckhorn says he would expect “significant owner investment,” likely more than $200 million, for any such project.

Otherwise, he said the model for recent stadiums elsewhere has had local governments pay for public improvements like roads, water and sewer lines, streetscaping and possibly assembling the land. It does not include the public helping to pay for the stadium itself.

Still, Buckhorn said last month, “everything that I do chips away at the cost. If I can do the infrastructure, that alleviates a significant chunk of that half a billion dollars.”

St. Petersburg Times