BRADENTON, Fla. — In an effort to build a new $450 million stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Petersburg, Fla., has begun a search to see whether any developers will pay the right price to turn Tropicana Field, the team’s current ballpark, into a mixed-use project.

Sale and redevelopment of the city-owned, 86-acre Tropicana Field, home to one of the few domed Major League Baseball stadiums, is an integral part of the complex financing plan the Rays proposed.

The plan also is expected to include using tax-exempt and taxable bonds to finance a portion or possibly all of a new 35,000-seat stadium at Al Lang Field, a waterfront site where the Rays currently hold spring training exhibition games, Michael Kalt, senior vice president of development and business affairs for the team, said yesterday .

Building the new stadium not only is dependent upon finding a developer willing to buy Tropicana Field as part of the financing, but also requires city voter approval in November’s election and approvals from the Pinellas County Commission.

City officials released a request for proposals last Friday seeking developers interested in buying and redeveloping Tropicana Field as a “world class, high intensity, urban, mixed-use community.” Responses to the RFP are due March 18 and the city has reserved the right to reject them.

City officials have not voted for the Rays plan, but said that sending out the RFP would allow them to gather information about its feasibility.After responses to the RFP come in, Kalt said the team and St. Petersburg would be able to develop a “pretty strong framework” for the finance plan in the spring. After that a formal search for underwriters would begin. The team has already hired Fulbright & Jaworski LLP as bond counsel.

The Rays are expected to contribute as much as $150 million to the plan. An essential component is the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site into a major retail, entertainment, and housing development.

Although the Rays previously said they would seek financing assistance from Florida in the form of a 30-year sales tax rebate that could be leveraged with the sale of bonds, Kalt said that plan is currently off the table because revenues supporting the state budget are declining. Those include sales tax revenues on which the state depends because Florida does not have a state income tax.

“Obviously, there are a lot of budget issues they are facing right now and we realize this won’t be the right time, politically, to seek it,” Kalt said referring to getting a sales tax rebate from the state Legislature. He did not rule out seeking the rebate in future years.

Kalt said preliminary discussions concerning the new stadium finance plan have included cash and bonded tax increment financing, but ultimately that kind of financing will depend on the economics resulting from the sale of Tropicana Field — in other words, how much cash from the sale can be contributed to the new facility.

Although Tropicana Field is in a community redevelopment district, the RFP released last week asks developers to “assume no TIF financing is available.”

It is not clear yet whether the Rays’ preliminary financing plan will include the use of other kinds of revenues, such as tourist development taxes or local excise taxes.

Some of those taxes already are pledged to pay back $72 million of outstanding bonds that cannot be called until 2016, said St. Petersburg finance director Jeff Spies.

Another $23.4 million of outstanding debt secured by a previous state sales tax rebate — authorized by the Legislature to convert Tropicana Field from a multiuse venue into a baseball stadium — cannot be called until 2013, according to Spies.

Spies said he was unaware of any legal issues that could arise if the Tropicana stadium was no longer used for baseball.

“The bondholders are not in any way in jeopardy regarding what happens, and what does not happen, to that stadium,” he said. “There’s nothing outstanding on Tropicana Fields that affects the redevelopment or the sale of that property. Currently, the outstanding debt has been established in a couple of different arrangements between the county and the state and the city to pledge revenues unrelated to the operations of the stadium.”

As part of their due diligence in this process, Spies said the Rays inquired about the outstanding debt and what has been pledged for repayment.

In 10 seasons, the Rays finished in last place every year but one and they’ve ranked last in the American League in attendance for seven straight years, according to Fox Sports.

Tropicana Field opened March 3, 1990, and cost $138 million to build. It hosted a variety of sporting events, including hockey, college basketball play-offs, and ice skating shows. In October 1996, it was closed for 17 months and $85 million was spent converting it solely for use by the Rays. It seats 45,000 spectators. The new stadium will have 35,000 seats, 50 suites, and 2,500 club seats.

“We are looking to create the most intimate ballpark in Major League Baseball. We want every fan to feel as close to the game as possible,” according to a Web site set up by the Rays to keep the local community informed about the project at http://www.majorleaguedowntown.com.

“Tropicana Field becomes more expensive to maintain and operate each year and the stadium does not showcase what is truly great about Tampa Bay, fresh air, and water views. There is no site better suited to showcase the beauty of the region and the city of St. Petersburg than Al Lang Field,” the site said.

Unlike Tropicana’s enclosed roof, the new stadium will have a retractable roof that will shield the playing field and fans from the elements, made of a light weatherproof fabric that can be opened in six to eight minutes.

In 2009, the Rays will vacate Al Lang Field, where they currently hold spring training practice, for a new spring training venue about 80 miles south of St. Petersburg in Charlotte County.

Charlotte is doing a $27 million bond-financed renovation of an existing park for the Rays.


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