Chambers of Commerce say either Hillsborough or Pinellas could afford new tax-funded baseball stadium

11/20/12 Janelle Irwin
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Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties can afford to build a new baseball stadium according to a coalition of Tampa Bay area chamber of commerce groups. Based on a study released Monday by the group, a stadium build would need hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and cooperation from the Tampa Bay Rays owners. Chuck Black, chair of the Tampa Chamber, said right now the money question is more important than where.

“We decided it would be a good tool in the tool bag of the community for someone to take a real detailed look at various financing options if a new stadium was determined to be completed. Since it is a regional activity, this caucus, this team that we put together is really a joint activity between the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.”

The caucus, headed up by businessman Chuck Sykes, looked at baseball stadiums in similar markets. When the current Rays ballpark was built in the early 90s it cost less than $200 million. The estimated cost has now soared to about $500 million. Sykes estimates that the Rays could kick in about $150 million of that cost. To do that, Rays’ owners need to have better game attendance though. And right now, the franchise struggles to fill the Trop.

“The critical watermark level – if you were to talk to the team and what really I think is a more sustainable business model for them is if they really are running more around 30,000 people per game and this is around 81 games per year. So, there’s a lot of volume there that you got to look at filling those seats. At a minimum you’re probably looking at 26-27,000. So we’re running 5-6,000 people per game [short]. That’s really kind of creating somewhat of the problem that we have.”

Even if the Rays meet the $150 million contribution that leaves $350 million left to taxpayers. Sykes said the caucus isn’t proposing any new taxes on residents, but rather using a combination of already existing taxes – like Penny for Pinellas or community redevelopment funds in Hillsborough and tourism tax hikes. But even though they can say there are no new taxes, it would still tie up community funding that could be used elsewhere.

“That’s something to me that, if I’m a citizen I think we need to be engaging in dialogue because I think that’s a question that needs to be answered. That is an opportunity cost. Do we or do we not want to put the money to build a new stadium or do we want to use it for something else?”

That’s where Sykes says residents in the area need to consider the benefits.

“It was estimated that there was $150 million or more of economic benefit that Pinellas County is currently deriving from having baseball there and the way that that was calculated, from my recollection of the presentation is basically they did surveys of people at the games and they said, ‘are you here just because of the Rays?’ And if you said, ‘no, I came down for the beach and we caught a Rays game’ they didn’t count you. I look at that and I think it sounds pretty viable.”

Sykes added that some economists would argue those surveys aren’t a good measure of tangible revenue.

“That doesn’t mean that just because the stadium was there that people wouldn’t have come anyway. In fact, when you call to book your hotel room and they were sold out, you would have loved to come down with your kids and not go to the Rays game. And so you get into this discussion about – you can look at the quantifiable metrics, but then they can paint a picture and say, ‘yeah but, just because it was used for the Rays doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been used for someone else.’ You just begin to talk in circles – it gets a little complicated.”

The Rays are under contract to play in Tropicana Field until 2027. But after 2016 the annual amount St. Pete and Pinellas County pay for the Trop will go down considerably because portions of the debt on the domed stadium will be paid off. At that point, those governments could use that money to fund other services or reduce taxes. Sykes thinks the expiring debts could mean Hillsborough and Pinellas have tough choices to make and quick.

“And in this environment when the economy is tight, budgets are tight, no one wants increased taxes. That’s something to us, we need to move quick and the reason why is because when that debt gets paid off it’s not going to sit there – it’s going to be claimed and it’s going to be used. So, if we miss this window past 2016 and this thing takes three years to build a stadium…if we miss that window, we just believe we’re going to be in a really difficult spot – particularly in Pinellas County – in finding sources that are available.”

Other possible financing options include using a visa incentive program for foreign national investors. That would inject $500,000 per investor into the project. The financing caucus also considered a Hillsborough rental car surcharge that could supplement the project with as much as $150 million. All of the options are contingent on local and state elected officials being on board.

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