Rays' stadium plan has foes, friend in capital

Crist is gung-ho, but legislators say now is not tax-break time.

Published November 15, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- The Tampa Bay Rays scored a powerful ally Wednesday in their quest to put an iconic downtown stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront: Gov. Charlie Crist.

But they also found new adversaries in the state Legislature.

In his first public comments on the issue since the Rays' plans were disclosed Friday by the St. Petersburg Times, Crist said he has "pretty much" pledged to do what he can to help the Rays build a 35,000-seat ballpark on the site of Al Lang Field.

That includes a potential $60-million state tax break.

"I think the opportunity to create an ambiance right on the waterfront in St. Petersburg is brilliant, I really do," said Crist, who rents a St. Petersburg condominium that would look out over left field of a new stadium. "The waterfront in St. Petersburg is glorious, as it is all over the state."

Speaking just hours before the state announced a projected $2.5-billion budget shortfall this year and next, Crist talked about how a sales tax rebate for a sports stadium can jump-start Florida's economy.

Under the state incentive program, the Rays would receive $2-million a year in sales tax rebates on goods sold at the new stadium for 30 years. The Florida Marlins are pushing for a similar tax break to build a stadium in Miami.

"It provides jobs, jobs, jobs for a lot of people," Crist said. "I look at it as an economic development, just as I'm sure people down in Miami do. I think it's important that we continue to move forward and stay on offense, instead of becoming a defensive mode."

An unabashed sports fan who threw out the first pitch at this year's Rays home opener, Crist is now the champion of a cause that has gone nowhere in recent years.

His comments were met with quick skepticism from both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, who would have to approve any tax break.

"We have 700,000 uninsured children and the worst high school graduation rate in the nation," said House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I'm just not sure how we can give tax breaks to stadiums."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, invoked a report from state economists Wednesday showing the moribund housing market will result in $2.5-billion less revenue for the state during the current and next fiscal year.

"That should answer the Rays' question whether the Legislature and taxpayers can come up with $60-million," Fasano said.

"Unless there's some miracle with the economy changing overnight, I don't see any major tax breaks going to sports franchises in the next couple years," he added.

At issue is the nature of the tax break, which was created to lure major league franchises to the state.

It's now being considered as a way for teams that are already here to build stadiums under the guise of economic development, said one of the legislation's authors, former state Pinellas legislator Curt Kiser.

The Rays and the Marlins already have benefited from the tax break once, Kiser said. Now they want it a second time.

"I've been concerned about major league franchise owners taking advantage of that," said Kiser, who now is a lobbyist and lawyer with Holland & Knight. "In my heart of hearts, I really wish they would build that stuff with their money."

The Rays are discussing plans to build a $450-million stadium on the site of their current spring training home, Al Lang Field.

The stadium would be open-air, but a sail-like covering would protect the fans and the field from the sun and the rain. The team has so far declined to release a drawing of the proposed stadium.

As part of the deal, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg would pay one third of the contruction cost. The sale of the existing Tropicana Field site would help finance construction as well.

But the Rays would like the $60-million state tax break to help make up any difference.

Rays executives are leaning toward hiring one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, Brian Ballard, to increase the team's presence in Tallahassee.

Team president Matt Silverman released a two-sentence statement after the governor's comments on Wednesday.

"The governor's words speak for themselves," said Silverman, who has not publicly discussed details of the deal. "We are very pleased to have his support."

Rays officials, meanwhile, continue to woo local elected leaders.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch left a meeting at Tropicana Field with several questions still unanswered.

He knows he's hardly alone in that regard. The Rays are eyeing a potential city referendum to approve the new stadium next November.

"I see a lot of potential in the plan," Welch said. "But I still have a whole lot of questions."


NEW STADIUM FAST FACTS: How to pay for it?

A new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays is projected to cost about $450-million. Here's how it could come together.