On Wednesday, Steve Contorno (Tampa Bay Times) reported that Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative advocacy group funded by David H. and Charles Koch, began running video ads urging Hillsborough County residents to oppose the use of tax dollars for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
According to the article, AFP — who also has launched similar advocacy campaigns in other cities where sports teams seek public funds for new stadiums — aims to draw a line in the sand as discussions continue between local government officials and the Rays to ensure no taxpayer money is used to woo the team from one side of the bay to the other.
The video in question is complete with an animated ‘taxpayer’ being bowled over by a player sliding into a base, and says, “When it comes to the big game of corporate welfare, the taxpayers are always the losers.”
The team has proposed the building of a new stadium in Ybor City, yet no financial details have been made publicly available. The estimated cost of a new stadium is somewhere between $500-800 million, while Rays Principal Owner Stu Sternberg has committed just $150-million to the project.
The team claims it will need a public subsidy to make the budget work, a point which team president Brian Auld spoke about during a recent talk at the St. Petersburg Tiger Bay Club:
Our business isn’t able to fund a ballpark on its own, Auld said. Our debt payments would hamstring payroll and we wouldn’t be able to put a competitive product on the field.
There is absolutely a reasonable argument to be made that’s not where this community wants to put its dollars. We’re going to make our case that we think it does have a positive return, that a new ballpark can lead to a higher tax base that can fund a whole bunch of other services in the area. But it’s not an easy case.
It is unlikely that Hillsborough County commissioners would propose a tax increase that would necessitate a public referendum, which likely is the catalyst for AFP’s entry into the fray.
Ken Hagan, the Hillsborough County lead on the discussions with the Rays, has not been transparent in his dealings with the team, and famously championed the secretive deal which bought the Atlanta Braves a new home in Cobb County.
It’s the perfect model for what we’re trying to do here, Hagan said in a June 2017 interview with Sports Talk Florida. (Come up with) a financing plan that the development can help pay.
Yet the same funding apparatus advocated by Hagan has caused a major a budget shortfall of $30 to $55-million, forcing Cobb County officials to raid $21 million in rainy-day funds to plug the gaping hole in the 2018 budget.
Neil deMause (Field of Schemes) also found that Cobb County is looking at just $5.2-million in new revenue from the new facility, for a return on investment of at least negative-80% — less than a 60% annual profit.
The digital ad is reportedly only the start of the campaign. Americans For Progress is prepared to use the Koch Brothers money to launch phone banks and radio ads, and to send out mailers to further encourage Hillsborough County residents to pressure their politicians.
AFP’s efforts could still influence funding decisions if Hillsborough County commissioners believe there will be a political cost to supporting publicly funded stadium subsidies.
St. Petersburg has proposed the building of a new stadium in an effort to keep the team, by similarly using money from the existing bed tax or new development on public land. There is a difference, however: Pinellas County has already accrued a substantial amount of money through the current bed tax mechanism, and isn’t considering any new taxes.
Per Contorno, Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman, confirmed these considerations but said the mayor “has no plans to ask our taxpayers to incur the costs of a new stadium via a new tax.”