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Joe Henderson

Henderson: Battle for stadium dollars will be fierce


Published:   |   Updated: June 11, 2013 at 09:07 AM

I remember appearing on a local radio station many years ago when the Buccaneers were threatening to leave town unless they got a new stadium.

The issue was on everyone's minds as people scrambled to find a way to keep the team here. The host casually mentioned on the air that surely people wouldn't mind paying a little extra in taxes if it meant we kept football.

Right?

Well, one thing I quickly learned on this side of the sports/news aisle is that a lot of people really do mind seeing their money spent in such a way. They mind a lot. Even though voters eventually did decide to raise the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for all kinds of stuff, it's still the "stadium" part of that stuff that resonates loudest with the 47 percent who cast a ballot against it.

I mention this because we could be headed back toward that contentious abyss as the Rays stadium saga plays out, even though technically it hasn't started. Already we see politicians fighting over money that won't be available for at least a couple of years, if it is ever available at all, and the phantom stadium is at the center of it all.

That was the gist of a story with this screaming banner headline on Page 1-A of Monday's Tampa Trib: Who will get that $100M?

That's the estimated amount of property tax that could be available to help pay for a new Rays baseball stadium in downtown Tampa - you know, that stadium for a team the city doesn't have and, if St. Petersburg has its way, never will.

But when a potential pot of money of that size is sitting there, why wait for the blueprints? As the Trib's Michael Sasso reported, some local politicians aren't waiting until that tax pot is actually available before figuring out ways to spend it on things that don't include a stadium.

It's about $13 million annually from a special downtown district currently committed to paying off bonds at the Tampa Convention Center. It's a funding mechanism called tax-increment financing, which basically allows municipalities to pay for big-ticket items in a specified area without saddling the general populace with the bill.

Those convention bonds will go bye-bye in 2015, though, and everyone seems to have an idea what to do with the money after that.

County Commissioner Victor Crist said Hillsborough should get some of the dough. Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick would rather spend it on something other than a baseball stadium.

This project has about 127 hurdles to clear before it even gets to the point of having these discussions, but it does show how difficult it's going to be for those who want to see the Rays playing in downtown Tampa.

From the get-go, the convention center money was seen by pro-stadium folks as a way to pay a large chunk of a stadium bill that should be around $600 million, give or take a retractable roof.

It could also pay for other things the city badly needs, and therein lies the tale.

If the battle lines over money are taking shape in Tampa before the Rays even know if they can leave St. Pete, what will it be like if it ever gets really serious here?

I can promise you, when it comes to how their taxes are spent, people really do mind. If we don't know that yet, we may find out soon enough.

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