First things first: On Thursday, I reported, based on a column by the Tampa Tribune’s Joe Henderson, that the $100 million in downtown property tax money Tamps Mayor Bob Buckhorn is proposing to dedicate to a Tampa Bay Rays stadium was worth only $50 million, since it would be paid out over 30 years. This was wrong: I’d assumed that when Henderson wrote “it’s worth about $100 million over 30 years,” he meant it was worth $100 million over 30 years, when he actually meant it would be paid out over 30 years, but worth $100 million now. According to last November’s joint Tampa-area chamber of commerce funding document (thanks, Noah Pransky, for the link), the Community Redevelopment Area fund actually brings in $13 million a year, which if dedicated to the Rays could pay off … actually close to $200 million in stadium bonds, but the chambers of commerce used conservative projections, so only counted it as worth $105-115 million now, which Buckhorn apparently rounded down to $100 million.
This isn’t actually good or bad news — or rather, it’s good news if you’re trying to count pennies to add up to $600 million worth of stadium cost, bad news if you’d rather see Tampa considering handing $50 million in tax money to the Rays than $100 million.
Buckhorn is determinedly in penny-counting mode, holding a press conference on Friday in which he said that the Rays may be asked to contribute a “significant” amount toward a stadium, as much as $200-300 million, while promising that taxpayers won’t bear most of the costs — which would be a neat trick, given that $200-300 million would still leave the majority of the costs on the public’s tab. Though Buckhorn did add, according to the Tampa Tribune’s Michael Sasso’s paraphrase, that “Tampa and Hillsborough County simply might not be able to find enough money for a new ballpark and may have to scrap the idea,” so maybe the mayor is at least acknowledging the tyranny of math.
Assuming all these numbers actually mean anything, though, how reasonable is it to think that Tampa could actually cobble together enough money to build a new stadium for the Rays? If a stadium costs $600 million, which seems to be the going rate — the four recent MLB stadiums listed in the chamber of commerce report (Marlins, Twins, Mets, Nationals; the Yankees‘ $2-billion-plus stadium didn’t get included for some reason) averaged $628.5 million per — then the math looks like this:
Public: $105-115m from CRA property tax receipts
Team: $200-300m from new stadium revenues, naming rights, parking revenues, Stuart Sternberg’s pocket, etc.
???: $185-295m from elfin magic
That’s a sizable chunk of change still left to be determined. Proposals for new revenue in the chamber of commerce report range from a countywide 5% surcharge on rental cars ($140-150 million) to asking the state of Florida for one of its $2 million a year tax-rebate deals $33-37 million); Buckhorn has also suggested tapping into the EB-5 green-cards-for-interest-free-loans deal that the Brooklyn Nets used for $100-150 million, but since that would only amount to a way to borrow money without interest for five years, after which the principal would still have to be repaid, it’s hard to see it being worth more than a few million dollars total to the city.
Then there’s the question of whether Sternberg would really want to spend as much as $300 million to move to a new stadium across the bay. That’s as much as Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is spending on renovating Wrigley Field, and about as much as the San Francisco Giants spent on their new ballpark a decade ago, and Tampa fans don’t have the deep pockets of either Cubs or Giants fans to repay it via more club seat purchases.
Or to look at it another way: Just to break even on $300 million of expenses, the Rays would have to generate $20-25 million in new revenues per year. To make that a reasonable gamble, the Rays, currently at $167 million a year in revenue, would have to turn into … the San Diego Padres ($189 million), maybe? I guess that’s not too terrible a bet for Sternberg to agree to, though to have any money left over to actually increase the Rays’ payroll — the ostensible goal of this whole exercise — they’d need to be up in the echelon of the Toronto Blue Jays ($203 million) or Baltimore Orioles ($206 million), which seems like a stretch given the Tampa market.
Still, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility; and back in 2008, when the sail-roofed St. Petersburg model was still the flavor of the month, Sternberg did float spending $150 million in cash, plus $55 million in future parking revenues. Regardless, it looks pretty likely that the best Buckhorn (or any other Tampa-area official) will be able to do is to have the public go halfsies on a stadium for which the Rays would receive all the revenues; that would be better than some stadium deals, certainly, but still a whole bunch of taxpayer money. And that’s before even getting into whatever it would cost to buy the Rays out of their current lease in St. Petersburg, which runs through 2027 … you know, elfin magic is looking better and better.