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Rays Stadium Search: What we know about the leaked Hillsborough County stadium site

Hillsborough County selects Ybor City for a potential Rays stadium site, but many questions remain.

Last night, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan announced that he has finally found a site in Ybor City for the Rays new stadium.

This announcement has been a long time coming, as Hillsborough County officials have been searching for a site for baseball since the Rays got permission to search beyond Pinellas County back in January, 2016.

Speculation as far back as 2013 had the Rays nestling a new stadium on the border between downtown Tampa’s financial district and historic Ybor (home to Tampa’s restaurant and nightlife), acting as a bridge between the two thus-far separated sectors of the city.

Back then, however, the Rays could not be the ones to line up this location, nor could the city of Tampa itself, without opening themselves up to legal action from the City of St. Petersburg, due to the complicated legal document guarding the Rays lease at Tropicana Field. Instead, Pinellas and Hillsborough County must each submit a bid for the Rays new home, should the team want to leave.

Commissioner Hagan has taken the lead on behalf of Hillsborough County (in which the City of Tampa is located) to coordinate the acquisition of land.

Early speculation centered and the area west of Nuccio Parkway, known as Tampa Park, but that site proved difficult to acquire. In addition to a low income housing complex, that site included a public elementary school, a city park, and a library deemed historic by the city.

You can read more about that struggle here: Rays Stadium Search: What’s the hold up in Tampa Park?

Commissioner Hagan then began to play hardball, and after some suggestions that the search could abandon downtown all together and consider sites in Westshore, the County’s proposal returns to that Ybor/Channelside corridor.

Now, however, focus has shifted to the east side of Nuccio highway, and even closer to the waterfront.

What do we know about this potential stadium site?

We know the Location

The proposed site, reported by WFLA as an Ybor City neighborhood bordered by Channelside Drive, E. 4th Street, N. 15th Street and Adamo Drive, is a two- by three-block area totalling approximately 15-acres, which is inline with stadium sites like those in San Francisco and the new Oakland stadium.

The site hugs the southern edge of Ybor City along 4th Avenue is just three blocks away from Ybor’s primary entertainment spine along 7th Avenue. In the heart of Ybor City we find restaurants, bars, shops restaurants. As you move south, toward the channel, the area becomes more industrial.

This new location has the same advantages of Tampa Park, including its proximity to I-4/I-275, the Selmon Expressway, and the streetcar and Amtrak train system. It’s nestled in the central Downtown Tampa core, an area that should accommodate city-related financing initiatives, and is walkable to the nightlife of Ybor City.

The location also edges as close to the waterfront of the Ybor Channel as possible without disrupting the Cruise and Shipping industry in that area.

We also know who will acquire the land

According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the land acquisition is being facilitated by a non-profit organization led by three local corporate business leaders with influential voices in the Tampa community:

The option agreements with landowners are held with a newly established nonprofit called SC Hillsborough Corporation comprised of business leaders and led by Chuck Sykes, CEO of Sykes Enterprises and Ron Christaldi, CEO of Shumaker Advisors Florida.

Using a nonprofit to facilitate the next steps in the stadium site selection process will be quicker because decisions won’t require approval from county commissioners. It also saves the county money, Hagan said.

The use of a non-profit has pro’s and con’s, from a fan and taxpayer perspective.

Forming a third party organization allows the County to proceed more quickly and efficiently in matters like land acquisition. Quite likely this also helps the project proceed without the Rays direct involvement. The Rays agreement with St. Petersburg requires them to pay fees to the city once they have decided to leave. This give them incentive to avoid public announcement of that decision for as long as possible.

The establishment of this nonprofit also means that work can proceed outside many of the constraints of government accountability. Sunshine State laws that would require public notice of meetings and disclosure of correspondence, for example, will not apply. This will leave residents largely in the dark about the details of negotiation over land and financing, including discussions about the use of public funds.

What we still don’t know

Even if we are to assume that this site is indeed the final choice, there are many remaining unknowns, and some are troubling.

First, Commissioner Hagan does not appear to be working in cooperation with the City of Tampa:

"From a land use perspective this is a great location," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn wrote in a statement. "While the city was not aware of Commissioner Hagan's announcement, we look forward to hearing how Hillsborough County plans to pay for it." [TBBJ]

This is the second statement by Mayor Buckhorn in the last month that intimated Hagan had not coordinated with him or his office regarding the stadium search. This is a curious position, because the Tampa City Council will surely be involved with several different financing decisions, as well as all manner of construction and planning approvals, for the long-term development of the area.

City-county tensions are sadly all too common in this area. We can only hope that in this case, the key players will find constructive ways to work together.

Secondly, there has been no public discussion of finances. The $15-30 million it likely costs to acquire this property pales in comparison to the $600 million yet to be raised to build the stadium.

Finally, we have not seen a full proposal. As a result we still do not know what will become of the immediate surrounding areas adjacent to this ballpark site.

Will supporting businesses, hotels, and parking lots crop up? What is the current planning/zoning status of this area and how might that change? Is the location properly zoned to take advantage of public funds? Answering these questions will require a new spirit of cooperation among government and civic leaders.

Choosing a location is exciting, but I’m afraid that was the easy part. What comes next will be much more difficult, and require the cooperation and buy in of individuals at the county, city, team, and taxpayer levels.