Rays willing to put $150M up front

The team would get a private loan to advance its stadium plans.

By Aaron, Sharockman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays are willing to contribute their $150-million share for a proposed downtown ballpark in a lump sum instead of yearly rent payments, team executives said Tuesday.

The money would come from a private team loan, Rays senior vice president of development Michael Kalt said. The Rays previously had planned to pay the city $10-million a year in rent payments to cover a third of the $450-million stadium cost.

Changes in Major League Baseball revenue and accounting rules allowed the Rays to reconsider how they paid their part of ballpark construction.

Practically, Kalt said, the switch makes no difference to the team's proposal, which when coupled with the proposed redevelopment of Tropicana Field tops $1-billion.

But critics had called into question the idea of rent payments, saying the city could be left responsible if something went wrong. If that happened, they said, the city also would be on the hook for a new loan.

With the Rays borrowing the money up front, that concern is virtually eliminated.

"It's easier for us to put up the dollars up front," Kalt acknowledged Tuesday. "But really, it makes absolutely no difference."

The Rays' contribution is only one piece of a $450-million financial puzzle that has yet to become clear.

Team officials admitted Tuesday they still had more questions than answers.

In January, the team abandoned possible state funding for the project. Now the team appears ready to rely solely on the successful redevelopment of Tropicana Field to make up the difference.

The team is hoping to collect as much as $300-million through the sale of the 86-acre property along with the city and county property taxes generated on the site.

Team president Matt Silverman said the Rays will not know if the sale of Tropicana Field can create the money needed for a new ballpark before March 18, when developers' offers for the site are opened by the city.

The Rays, who are working with developer Hines Interests of Houston on a proposal, say they believe the financing will work. But they won't be able to prove it until perhaps summer.

The City Council is expected to vote whether to schedule a referendum on the stadium proposal in June. The Rays said they hope to have a definitive financial program in place before then.

"People want validation," Silverman said. "But it's still very early in the game."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or 727 892-2273.