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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Sports

Tampa Yankees relocation to Ocala in doubt

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Published:   |   Updated: January 7, 2014 at 11:16 PM

TAMPA — The relocation of the New York Yankees’ minor league affiliate from Tampa to Ocala is in limbo amid public concerns over using tax dollars to build a stadium.

In a letter read to Ocala City Council members Monday, Anthony Bruno, senior vice president of Yankee Global Enterprises, said plans to finance a stadium for the Tampa Yankees with a half-cent sales tax increase had met “unexpected opposition.” Bruno asked the council to cancel a license agreement the city and team signed Nov. 7.

“It does not appear likely the funding mechanism for the stadium ... will be placed on a referendum in time for the project to proceed as planned,” Bruno wrote. “While we expected to bring the community together with this project it unfortunately has become a source of division.”

But the team’s move 97 miles north to Marion County might not be dead. Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said Tuesday he thinks the city council will find a way to finance a stadium without the county commission putting a sales tax increase on the ballot.

“It looks like something the city will have to take upon itself,” Guinn said. “We’re up to the challenge.”

Marion commissioners had planned to hold a hearing Tuesday regarding a referendum to raise the sales tax by half a penny. The proceeds would pay back bonds to build a $45 million stadium-entertainment complex near Interstate 75 and State Road 200.

But after Ocala City Council President John McLeod briefed commissioners on Bruno’s letter, they withdrew the ordinances for the referendum and canceled the public hearing.

The commission had delayed a vote on the sales tax increase in December after several residents asked that some type of public-private partnership be considered to build the stadium.

“The reason (the Yankees) did that was so they wouldn’t put the commission in a situation where they had to bring forward a sales tax, which wasn’t going to happen with this commission,” Guinn said. “They weren’t going to let the people vote on it.”

Guinn said he thinks the city council can find enough money from different sources to finance the stadium without raising taxes. One source of money could be new property taxes from Munroe Regional Hospital, a public facility that was leased to a private company in June. And the county has agreed to do the site work for the ballpark, which could cut down the cost of the stadium.

“We would pay for it out of current cash flow and some new cash flow coming on board,’’ Guinn said.

Gregory Carey, an expert on stadium financing with the Wall Street banking firm Goldman, Sachs & Co., has agreed to talk with Ocala leaders about how best to finance a new ball park, Guinn said.

As mayor, Guinn doesn’t have a vote. But he thinks at least three of the five council members will vote to finance the stadium and that it can be ready by April 2016, the team’s desired start date.

As for the Yankees, Bruno’s letter left the door open for some alternative arrangement that would move the minor-league team to Ocala.

“I think right now (Ocala is) looking for alternative options,” said Howard Grosswirth, vice president of marketing for the New York Yankees. “Like the letter said, the door is not completely shut.”

The Tampa Yankees, a Class A farm team, have been a team since 1994. They’ve played at George M. Steinbrenner Field, formerly Legends Field, since 1996.

The New York Yankees have been contemplating moving the minor-league team for years. The Tampa Yankees draw about 1,000 to 1,500 fans per game and might fare better in a community without the many sports franchises that call the Tampa-St. Petersburg area home. A possible move by the minor league team would not affect the New York Yankees spring training games, which are held at Steinbrenner Field.

msalinero@tampatrib.com

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