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County Keeping Rays Ybor City Plan in Play

Tampa Bay Rays Ybor City ballpark rendering 1

Even though the team has walked away from discussions, Hillsborough County is working for now to keep the door open for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark. 

The Rays and Hillsborough County spent much of 2018 discussing a proposed new ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City. Pitched as part of an estimated $892-million project, the ballpark would have replaced Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg as the team’s home and potentially anchored a larger redevelopment initiative in the area. However, with a December 31 deadline in an agreement with St. Petersburg that gave them three years to explore the region for a new ballpark approaching, the Rays announced last month that they were rejecting the Ybor City proposal on the grounds that it was financially infeasible.

That announcement left much uncertainty such about how the Rays will handle their long-term facility situation, but Hillsborough County Commissioners on Wednesday nixed a motion that called for disbanding a working group created several years ago to help bring the Rays to Tampa. Officials indicated instead that, for now, they want to keep the proposal on the table in the event that discussions could resume. More from the Tampa Bay Times:

Complicating that delicate dance is another detail that emerged in Wednesday’s discussion — the sports law attorney that spearheaded negotiations for the county, and is now working for the Tampa Sports Authority, has continued “communicating” with the Rays and the baseball commissioner about the rejected proposal even though the window to do so closed on Dec. 31.

“We’re not negotiating, just sending them details and additional information about the proposal we had in place, the proposal that’s still on the table … to make sure they understood that when we said we had secured 50 percent of the cost of the stadium from a private investment group we did in fact have that 50 percent worth of investor money,” County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times. “That deal is still on the table and the attorney, Irwin Raij, indeed has a written proposal and he offered to provide that to the baseball commissioner.”

Merrill said the team never explained its decision to end stadium negotiations with the county on Dec. 17. All he knows about why the deal fell apart, Merrill said, are the reasons outlined in a “rather unpleasant letter” the county received from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred that said the deal lacked specifics on the county’s plans for financing and timetables for starting construction.

The county hasn’t seen anything to indicate the Rays will change their minds, Merrill said. But they haven’t been discouraged, either.

The Rays are locked into their Tropicana Field lease through 2027. Their agreement with St. Petersburg–originally approved in 2016–would have allowed the Rays to buy out the lease for $2 million annually, but the team chose not to extend the deal ahead of its deadline. Whether the Rays look to revive new ballpark discussions in Tampa down the road remains to be seen, but Hillsborough County is leaving open the possibility for now that it could reengage in formal discussions with the team.

Rendering courtesy Tampa Bay Rays.

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