By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG — Whether or not they’re fans of baseball, residents in Tampa and St. Petersburg have the opportunity of a lifetime to become investors of the future of America’s pastime.
They’ve been told to imagine a sprawling ballpark with a retractable roof, enviable seating capacity and a prime location in Tampa that would make attract baseball teams and fans from all around.
Taxpayers will be expected to shell out close to $400 million in order achieve such a dream, notwithstanding overrun costs to expand infrastructure and parking garages around the new stadium.
The pitch was unveiled in the Bay Area Baseball Stadium Finance Summary, a joint project of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce intended to “educate” local citizens of the financial and social benefits of investing in such a venture.
Though the Tampa Bay Rays already enjoy a fully functional stadium, Tropicana Field, opened in 1990 in downtown St. Petersburg, complaints about less than ideal attendance and location have dogged the team’s fate and invited talks of moving the team across the bay.
The Major League Baseball team had its inaugural season in the stadium in 1998.
But such talk is muted, however, at least until 2027, when the Rays’ contract with the city of St. Petersburg expires, around the same time the large debt taken out to finance the original stadium will be paid off.
It cost nearly $233 million in construction in today’s dollars, and St. Petersburg has so far only been able to repay just over 25 percent.
For his part, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has kept the Rays in check about sticking around until 2027, threatening to sue any party attempting to break the contract and move the team out of the downtown structure.
“I put a lot in contracts, commitments and loyalty. All I’m asking is for them to abide by the contract,” Foster told the New York Times in June.
In the new proposal penned by the chambers of commerce, the Rays would pick up 20-40 percent of the estimated cost $621 million cost for construction of a new stadium, but the rest would fall on taxpayers, again.
The authors of the proposal were sure to address this skepticism, offering that any stadium deal could be accomplished “without imposing new taxes on local residents,” suggesting diverting old taxes in order to pay for it and renegotiating Tropicana Field debt payments for more favorable terms.
Instead of using the Community Investment Tax of Hillsborough County to build schools and basic infrastructure, the chambers of commerce wants that money redirected to finance the new stadium, according to the proposal. But the proposal also warns it could “face some political hurdles” if residents vote on the matter.
The one-cent sales tax in Pinellas County also could be retooled to pay for the stadium, the authors claim, as well as applying for millions in federal tax credits given to investors in low-income communities.
Commentators in the sports community lauded the efforts by the chambers of commerce to prop up baseball by using taxpayer dollars.
Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Gary Shelton summed up the debate by painting a dire picture for a world without public-subsidized stadiums, reiterating the necessity for passing this deal.
“You have every right to oppose a new stadium if you wish. Just understand this,” he wrote in apocalyptic terms on Friday. “Baseball is at stake. If you think a team is a community asset worth keeping, the eventual cost is going to be a new park”
The Miami gamble
The city of Miami went through its own troubles with Marlins Park, the baseball stadium that opened in April and cost $634 million overall, a 50-percent increase from the original estimated price conjured up by the owners of the team in the initial stages of planning.
Norman Braman, a Miami-based billionaire automobile dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, told Florida Watchdog in April that public-financed parks such as Marlins Park always end up being losses for the taxpayers and boons for the private investors who set the deals up and profit immensely.
“I don’t believe in corporate welfare. I believe that the Marlins have the capacity to build their own stadium,” said Braman. “It shouldn’t be the taxpayers that build these things.”
As a successful billionaire philanthropist, Braman said he has long prided himself on conducting honest business that benefits consumers and his employees, without the interventionist hand of government.
And he put his money where his mouth is.
Braman put more than $500,000 into defeating Miami-Dade County Commissioners who approved the stadium deal while at the same time hiking property taxes, saddling taxpayers with years of debt and burdening low-income families across the county.
“These are profit-making businesses. You make an investment in your own business, not the taxpayers,” he said. “No one cares about the taxpayers.”
Contact Yaël Ossowski, Watchdog.org’s Florida Bureau Chief at Yael@FloridaWatchdog.org