Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has made it clear he wants out of Tropicana Field, but the current anti-tax climate in the area may make securing any public funding a tough sell.
The team has a lease with the City of St. Petersburg to play in Tropicana until 2027, but Sternberg said last summer the stadium is not financially viable and the team has to move. He also set off a political firestorm after stating the search should involve the entire Tampa Bay area, including sites outside St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.
Last week, a contentious Pinellas County Commission meeting shed some light on the battle the team may face in seeking any public funding for a new stadium in the coming years.
Commissioners voted to extend a five-cent tourism tax in Pinellas set to sunset in 2015, but the board split on extending the tax indefinitely. Instead, a portion of the tax will cease in 2021, and many of those pennies would have held possible funding for a baseball stadium.
Though commissioners who opposed extending the tax permanently tell The Florida Independent their opposition was not about the Rays, some did shed light on what they expect from the team if they want future funding from the board for a new stadium.
Commissioner Norm Roche just joined the board after winning the election in November and referred to any stadium funding through a “back-door bed tax” as unacceptable. Roche says he very much wants to keep the Rays in Pinellas, but any efforts or plans need public approval.
“I think any kind of funding for a new stadium will have to be decided on by the voters, in the form of a referendum,” said Pinellas Commissioner Norm Roche.
Roche believes his stance may have caught some off-guard — including Rays officials, who sought a meeting with him after last week’s vote. Ray’s spokesman Rick Vaughn declined to comment for this story.
“I think people are surprised to have someone on the board who won with $5,000 out of his garage,” Roche says. “I think people with the Rays just want to get together to see who the new guy is.”
Since his announcement last summer, Sternberg has not shed any light on possible plans for a new stadium, and Pinellas commissioners took pains during the tourism tax vote to state the team had not made any kind of contact with the board on the issue.
“I haven’t heard anything from them, and I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” says Commissioner Neil Brickfield on the stadium issue. “The only thing I can say is I hope they re-sign Carl Crawford because I love watching him play.”
Brickfield is referring to the Rays star left-fielder who, amid Rays payroll cuts, is expected by baseball pundits to leave the team as a free agent to sign a mega-contract elsewhere.
Other stars of the American League East champion Rays are expected to leave, too, as Sternberg vowed to slash payroll after the team’s attendance was one of the worst in Major League Baseball last season.
The attendance woes led to frustration, as the team kept winning on the field. Sternberg announced that Tropicana was the problem. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster responded that the city would take legal action if the Rays tried to break its lease, but then softened his stance by saying a possible compromise could be reached if the team agreed to remain in Pinellas.
Pinellas County taxes are being used to pay bonds on Tropicana Field, leading Roche to agree that legal action would be necessary if the Rays tried to break the lease without compensating taxpayers.
“But I really don’t see any reason it needs to come to that,” Roche says. “I think everyone involved can come up with a solution.”
Commissioner Nancy Bostock also voted against continuing the tourism tax indefinitely but pledged to work with the Rays, if a plan made fiscal sense.
“I want to see the team stay here, but there is certainly an outer limit to what I would support,” she says.
But getting voters on board is another thing. Significant tax measures in the Tampa Bay area on the ballot this past election were trounced at the polls.
Voters could also be suspicious of the team’s need for a new stadium because of Ray’s financial documents leaked to the sports blog website Deadspin in August. The reports, which the team would not confirm or deny are accurate, show that the Rays turned a profit in 2007 and 2008.
In the past, teams could often secure public funding for new stadiums, but the new economic and political climate is making that a thing of the past, says sports economist David Berri.
Even when things were better economically, asking the public to pay for a stadium has been a tough sell. Especially since most economic studies show stadiums are not profitable endeavors for the public, Berri contends.
“Sports do not create economic growth, but they make people happier which can be a strong political force,” Berri says. “The problem is not everyone is a sports fan, so psychologically there is always an effort to say they benefit the public finances.”