Exclusive interview: Bob Buckhorn speaks out on transit issue and a potential Rays stadium

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Before this month’s vote on the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn sounded confident that win or lose, all systems were go for Tampa and Hillsborough County to work on getting a measure on the 2016 ballot for a transit measure, six years after the first attempt before the voters lost badly.

But then Greenlight Pinellas lost by an even worse margin, leading many transit advocates to wonder what it might take to get such a referendum  passed. Count the mayor among those who are now officially concerned.

“I think the stark reality is, and I think it will become even starker, is that it’s an uphill struggle,” Buckhorn told this reporter Wednesday afternoon at his office in City Hall. “The exit polling I think shows that people don’t want to be taxed. And to sell a tax for transportation, particularly in the rural parts of the community, is a straight uphill path. Is it insurmountable? No. Is it going to be a very, very difficult effort. Absolutely.”

Greenlight lost by a 62-38 percent margin, a bigger wipeout than the 2010 Hillsborough County transit tax measure (that margin was 58-42 percent). Mayor Buckhorn — like much of the political establishment in Hillsborough and Pinellas — was a strong proponent of the measure, appearing at forums with Pinellas County mayors on several occasions to talk up the proposal. “I was expecting better. I think all of us were,” he admits. “But I think that demographic is probably not that different than what we experienced in Hillsborough. And so, if we move forward, we’re going to have to be prepared for a very tough campaign. And we’re going to have to do things differently from what Hillsborough did in 2010, and what Pinellas did in this last cycle.”

What that is isn’t exactly clear at this point. But there are nearly two years to convince the public of the virtues of paying an increase in a sales tax to improve the county’s transportation system.

Meanwhile, although the latest published reports indicate that there could be a breakthrough between the city of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays by the end of the year regarding the ongoing stadium situation, there remains the issue of where might a new park be constructed if the club were to pack their bags and move to Tampa. That’s still a long way off, of course, but presumably if and when Rays management came to talk to officials in Hillsborough County, it’d be good for all parties to have specific sites to offer to the franchise.

Developer Jeff Vinik’s new plans for the 24 acres of real estate he recently gobbled up in the Channelside area include a large entertainment, office and retail district near Amalie Arena, and now may include a medical facility — but they don’t include room for a new ballpark.

“I don’t think it fits in with what Jeff (Vinik) wants to do with his property,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged Wednesday afternoon.

However, there still are the 80,000 square feet that currently hold the ConAgra Foods flour plant area near Channelside that might narrowly house a new stadium.

However, the more Buckhorn elaborates on that idea, the less appealing it gets. He says it would cost $70 million to move the plant and build it somewhere else. “I’m still committed, given the opportunity, to focus on an urban stadium. I think what MLB and the Rays want. I think there are other sites in downtown that could work,” he says, including the Tampa Park Plaza area running north of Channelside toward Ybor City on Nebraska Avenue.

The mayor ideally would like any such park to be inside the downtown area so he could tap into redevelopment money that will soon be available.

“If it’s outside the TIF, I can’t spend TIF dollars on it, ” he says, referring to the abbreviation for tax-increment financing, which is taxing revenue generated from a specific district in Tampa. Ybor City has its own TIF, but there isn’t much funding to collect and use in any fashion for a ballpark, making the Tampa Park Plaza concept less desirable. And other areas previously mentioned as potential sites, such as in the Westshore area or near the Florida State Fairgrounds, are also in non-TIF regions.

Two years ago a report generated by the respective local Chambers of Commerce in Tampa and St. Petersburg stated that financing on either side of the Bay could be engineered without imposing new taxes, and in the aftermath of Greenlight’s wipeout, Buckhorn says flatly that he would not propose a referendum to pay for any construction costs because “it won’t pass.”

“I think this will be a monumental lift to find a financing mechanism that would work,” he said. “I think the Rays would have to come to the table with serious money. I think it would have to be a smaller stadium, 30,000-35,000. I think the financing would be multi-layered from multiple sources. It’s not going to be simple like Raymond James (Stadium) was, which was one source of revenue that’s bondable over 30 years.” Referring to the controversial Community Investment Tax, which helped fund the building of the Buccaneers stadium, the mayor acknowledged that such a vote would probably never happen again — and probably never should have happened, as the deal the Glazier family made with the county is still ridiculed as one-sided. (In that deal, the county  commission agreed to pay any property taxes for the stadium.)

Buckhorn acknowledges that a whole menu of options are going to have to be reviewed to piece together such a financing puzzle, including  funding from the state, the federal government, Hillsborough County, the city of Tampa,  county, The Tourist Development Council and rental car surcharge fees.

Stay tuned to this space for more from the mayor as he begins his re-election campaign in earnest beginning early in 2015. And yes, we’ll get his thoughts on what’s up with his Democratic Party, and that rumor about his interest in running for governor in 2018.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.