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Business leaders take ballpark pitch to the people

But the bid to bolster support for the Tampa Bay Rays' new stadium faces an uphill battle following the big reveal of its price tag.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 20, 2018
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A rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays' proposed new ballpark in Ybor City. Courtesy photo.
A rendering of the Tampa Bay Rays' proposed new ballpark in Ybor City. Courtesy photo.
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The design of the Tampa Bay Rays’ proposed Ybor City ballpark was greeted mostly with public acclaim — no easy task in an area known for shooting down bold visions for community assets, like the much-maligned “Lens” blueprint for the St. Petersburg Pier and the $1.5 million waterfront Janet Echelman sculpture recently pooh-poohed by St. Petersburg City Council.

Jason Woody, vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Rays 100. Courtesy photo.
Jason Woody, vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Rays 100. Courtesy photo.

It’s the cost — $892 million, which doesn’t include the price of land acquisition — that has some influential people, like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, neglecting to go gangbusters in support of it. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said the team could contribute $150 million or more toward the cost of a new ballpark, but that leaves a $700 million-plus question mark surrounding the fate of the project.

Public financing for the bulk of the ballpark via a county-wide tax levy would seem to be a nonstarter — the Tampa Bay electorate likes tax increases even less than avant-garde public art. So that leaves a tough row to hoe for the Tampa Bay Rays 100, a group of business leaders druming up interest in private equity support, sponsorships, season ticket sales and other corporate finance options.

One of the group's leaders, Jason Woody, founder of Lion’s Eye Institute for Transplant and Research, hit the road this week on an outreach tour that included stops in Carrollwood, Temple Terrace and Sun City Center. He spoke to chambers of commerce and a Rotary Club about the ballpark design and cost. 

In an interview with Coffee Talk, Woody says politicians like Buckhorn are understandably gun-shy — it's early, and they don't want to get tied to a position that could come back to haunt them. "Right now there's a lot of grandstanding going on," he says. "I would rather have them say, 'Hey, let's investigate this and find out what it's going to cost. Let's all put our heads together, whether you're running for office or not, and see what we can come up with.'"

Woody says a creative combination of bed tax collections and revenue from potential new taxes on things like rental cars and food and beverage sales in the area around the ballpark could be a palatable alternative to an across-the-board levy. He also says Sternberg's contribution to the cost could double, or even go as high as $400 million, if the team receives the kind of deals for broadcasting and naming rights it seeks. 

"This isn't a St. Pete issue; this isn't a Tampa issue; let's just not lose this team," he says. "Instead of finding ways to not make it work, let's find a way to collaborate and make it happen. I think everybody's going to have to give a little bit here and there." 


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