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Hagan wants Hillsborough, Rays to talk baseball stadium

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 06:39 PM
TAMPA -

Growing restless at what they call a stadium standoff, some Hillsborough County leaders say they are willing to start talking with the Tampa Bay Rays about a future on this side of the water.

This week, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan signaled he's willing to champion talks between the Rays and the county. Ideally, Hagan said, he might be involved in those discussions, along with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and someone from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Getting to that point could be tricky, though.

The team is bound by contract to play at Tropicana Field through 2027, and St. Petersburg has vowed to hold the Rays to their contract. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said he might allow the team to look around St. Petersburg for a new ballpark site but not across the Bay.

The challenge for Hillsborough's leaders: finding a way to talk with the Rays without igniting a legal battle with St. Petersburg.

Hagan said he will ask the county attorney whether Hillsborough County can engage the team in discussions without provoking a lawsuit. He also expects to bring the issue before the full county commission within a few weeks.

He wants to see whether Hillsborough has a stadium site suitable for the Rays, and he's frustrated at what he sees as inaction on the issue in St. Petersburg.

"To sit idly by and see if the issues mysteriously work themselves out is impractical," Hagan said.

The Tribune was unable to reach Foster on Wednesday. Leslie Curran, chairwoman of the St. Petersburg City Council, said she had nothing to say about Hagan's efforts to speak with the Rays. She's focused on helping the Rays succeed in St. Petersburg.

"I guess we'll just keep doing what we're doing," Curran said. "This year, it's improved ticket sales this season and improved attendance this season."

To be sure, other groups already are working on the Rays stadium deadlock.

A group called the Clutch Hitters is lobbying local government leaders on the need for a new stadium. A group led by the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce is studying how to pay for a new ballpark.

The chambers' group expects to issue a report this summer. The group, however, isn't studying where to put a new stadium.

Hagan said location is a crucial issue. If a stadium were built at the Florida State Fairgrounds east of Tampa, for example, the state might be persuaded to donate the land. If it were built in downtown Tampa, a stadium might qualify for a type of property tax funding called tax-increment financing, he said.

How can you consider paying for a new stadium without knowing where it will be, he asked.

The Tribune polled four other county commissioners on Hagan's push to start a dialogue with the Rays. Sandra Murman and Mark Sharpe support the idea; Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist say talks would be premature.

Step one is reaching out to the Rays, but not necessarily lobbying to move the team across the Bay, Murman said. Still, she said, she respects Hagan's efforts to break the stadium deadlock.

"Let's try and get the ball moving down the road here and see if we can get something done," Murman said.

Crist said he would rather let St. Petersburg and the Rays continue negotiating. He'd also prefer to see the chambers of commerce issue their report first.

"I think it's safe to say that I'm not there yet," Crist said.


msasso@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso

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