Rays ask tourism board for $100 million

06/11/08 Seán Kinane
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The financial plan for the new waterfront stadium proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays hinges on the extension of two taxes, including Pinellas County’s tourist development tax. Today in Clearwater, the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) heard the Rays’ request for $100 million.

TDC members were briefed by Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long about the Rays' request to use funds from Pinellas County’s 5 percent tourist development tax, also known as the hotel bed tax.

“The first two cents were initially levied in 1978. In 1988 we added the third cent. In 1995 we added the fourth cent and in 2005 we added the fifth cent. There are specified uses for all of the tourist development taxes. … And the fourth cent and the fifth cent are restricted primarily to debt service payments on certain enumerated facilities including retained spring training facilities and professional sports franchise facilities,” Long said.

In 1993, $114 million in debt owed on the domed stadium now known as Tropicana Field was refinanced by the city of St. Petersburg. By interlocal agreement, the county committed the first cent, and half of the third cent of the tourist development tax to repaying that debt. But since 1995, revenue from only the fourth cent of the county tax has been given to St. Pete to pay down the debt until 2015, Long said.

"There’s a pledge to the bondholders of one and a half cents, the first and one half of the third," Long continued. "There’s a commitment of the fourth and the fourth frees up or supplants the pledge as the monies flow in. So the bottom line is that the entire fourth cent goes to the city of St. Petersburg to pay the debt service."

That debt would be paid off by Sept. 30, 2015, if no stadium is built. But the Rays have proposed extending the tax commitment for 30 more years.

Rays President Matt Silverman’s presentation to the TDC was very similar to the one he made to the St. Petersburg City Council last month. Silverman made some of the same claims that have been questioned by elected officials by including the sale of the Tropicana Field and revenue from parking in city-owned lots as “private” rather than public financial contributions to the project.

“We’re talking about $175 million of public funds, about $75 million of it coming from the city and the continuation of the current funds that are dedicated to baseball and then about $100 million of new tourist tax dollars in addition to the current commitment that the county has already pledged to the existing bonds,” Silverman said.

Eleven million a year of public funds currently subsidize baseball in St. Petersburg. If no new stadium is built, the annual amount will remain the same until the debt is retired in 2015. But Silverman said taxpayers would end up paying more per year, and for 30 years longer, if a new stadium is built on the current site of Al Lang Field.

“The public commitment to baseball on an annual basis rises from the $11 million today, roughly gets close to $13 million in 2020 to $14.5 mllion in 2025. But that the taxes generated at [the redeveloped] Tropicana Field during those same years should be well in excess of those public dollars and really creating a positive tax benefit for the community,” Silverman said.

TDC Board member Phil Henderson, who is president of Starlight Cruises, asked Silverman whether the stadium could be built with less of a financial commitment from public funds.

"It can and we’ve been asked, 'well, how come the Rays aren’t just doing this themselves?' And that would just be a financial burden that we wouldn’t be able to operate," Silverman said. "We think that this is an appropriate sharing of the funding, especially given the dollars that are generated. … It’s really up to you all and to the city and to the county to determine whether the risk-sharing is appropriate."

Silverman called the Rays’ financial proposal “a good starting point,” and said the Rays would contribute $150 million toward the stadium. A development that is as large as the one proposed for the Trop site may occur near Gandy Boulevard at a location known as Toytown.

TDC board chair Bob Stewart, who is also the chair of the Pinellas County Commission, was concerned whether there would be enough of a market to fill both developments. Stewart said that depending on what happens with the tourist development tax, it may affect St. Petersburg’s decision whether to put a referendum for a waterfront stadium on November’s ballot.

TDC board member Carlen Peterson also serves on the Clearwater City Council. Peterson asked whether the Trop site would be removed from the Community Redevelopment Agency if it is redeveloped, which is assumed in the Rays’ plan. St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran replied that it was still being discussed. Peterson told WMNF she needs more information before deciding whether to support committing an extension of the tourist development tax, including why Pinellas should pay more than St. Petersburg.

Tony Satterfield is on the TDC board and is the general manager of the Alden Beach Resort. Satterfield said he has not yet made up his mind.

The next TDC meeting is July 9 in the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater; that is when the TDC is expected to make its recommendations on the Rays’ request to the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners.

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Pinellas County Tourist Development Council, TDC

TDC Board members

Watch TDC meeting

St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Areas - CRAs

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners

Previous WMNF coverage of Rays' financial plan

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