Will the Rays pick St. Petersburg or Tampa? The answer could come this month
Depending on which hot take you want to place your bet on, the Tampa Bay Rays have heavily reconsidered their previous aversion to building a new ballpark in St. Petersburg or recent talks with Mayor Ken Welch are just ‘a distraction from the real conversation with Hillsborough County Chiefs about a stadium in Ybor City.
And leaders on both sides of the bay expect something to happen by the end of the month.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg made a surprise appearance at a meeting between Hillsborough and Tampa Sports Authority officials and Rays executives about a month ago, Hillsborough County Commissioner said, Ken Hagan at the Tampa Bay Times.
Neither Hagan nor Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was at the meeting. Castor hasn’t met Sternberg or anyone else in the Rays organization since early February, said spokesman Adam Smith. His chief of staff and chief financial officer met with the team leaders at the end of April.
Any major source of taxpayer funding should come with the county’s blessing.
“We never considered this a competition with St. Pete or Pinellas,” Castor said in a statement. “I’ve always said our main priority is to keep the team in Tampa Bay.
“The team tells us that they are still very interested in the Ybor site… The county (the sports authority) and the city are in the process of conceptualizing the financing options, but the stadium must adapt and improve the community, and we’re trying to get a better understanding of the team’s expectations for a stadium design for a full season.”
Earlier this year, Major League Baseball killed off a Rays proposal to split home games between Tampa and Montreal. As part of this plan, the team envisioned needing a smaller-than-average stadium in Tampa that required less public financial support.
The team said they would need a full-size stadium if they stayed in Tampa Bay for the entire season.
The Rays declined a request for an interview, but Rays president Brian Auld made this statement, “We are solely focused on keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay and appreciate the renewed energy toward that common goal.”
‘Put a ring on it’
Castor said the Rays had to choose which side of the bay the team wanted to lean on. Welch agrees and says the Pinellas County Tourism Development Board, which would be asked to support the use of hotel bed taxes for a new stadium, will also require that commitment.
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Welch, however, met with Rays and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton on May 23. He told The Times that he thinks such meetings will be more frequent in the future.
Welche said it was on track to meet its own June 30 deadline to choose between two developers for the Tropicana Field site — Miami’s Midtown Development and Sugar Hill, a group led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures. A group of local pastors recently endorsed Sugar Hill, while former Mayor Rick Kriseman chose Midtown, which was endorsed by the Pinellas County Urban League.
Welch is planning a trip to Sacramento to see some of JMA’s work after traveling to Reno, Nevada for the United States Conference of Mayors this week. He traveled to Miami to see the Midtown projects earlier this year. He said he thought the Rays met with the two developers as well.
When asked if the Rays were okay with the June 30 schedule, Welch replied, “We are having productive conversations.”
“You can’t make that decision until you have some certainty about the Rays,” Welch said. “I think we’re making good progress in answering a lot of the questions that need to be answered.”
These include installation on a location and crafting a broad development agreement.
“At some point, in order for us to go ahead and invest a lot of time and resources and make a significant request to the county for the bed tax, they’re going to have to put a ring on that,” did he declare. “I need to be engaged, let’s put it that way.”
The Rays stadium saga has been going on for 15 years. The team first pitched a stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront, a proposal that acrimoniously fell apart during negotiations with then-mayor Rick Baker. The Rays were then able to persuade another mayor, Rick Kriseman, to allow them to watch in Tampa. The Saint Petersburg City Council finally agreed in 2016 to let the team watch across the bay for three years.
In 2018, the Rays announced plans for an $892 million Ybor Stadium in 2018 only to withdraw the proposal later that year after clashing with county officials over how to pay for it. The Kforce site became their preferred target in 2021 for a smaller outdoor half-season site before that plan was canceled by Major League Baseball.
Raising the question of a roof
One issue that could be the deciding factor in the Rays’ choice is the type of roof, which the team says is now a requirement for summer baseball in Tampa Bay and according to Sternberg. is necessary.
This is where Welch says he sees an advantage.
“Particularly now that the Rays think there needs to be a cap,” he said, “I think we’re making good progress in answering a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
For example, one wonders if the former Kforce headquarters on East Palm Avenue at the western end of Ybor could work with a roof.
Hillsborough officials believe a “rainscreen,” something like a $90 million option described in a consultant’s report earlier this year, is a feasible option, Hagan said. A rain canopy was described by Castor as being similar to the roof of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the site of the Super Bowl earlier this year.
But he said that would require acquiring adjacent land leased by Tampa Electric Co., to increase the stadium’s footprint, he said.
“The roof is working at Kforce, but we need the TECO plot,” Hagan said, referring to the utility’s parent company.
Hagan said he had scheduled a meeting with TECO officials to discuss the matter.
As for a ballpark across the bay, Hagan said he expects the Rays to “fully check out” all of their options.
“However, the team knows that to be successful and to be sustainable long-term, it has to be in Tampa,” Hagan said. “Unfortunately, St. Pete was a failed business model.”
Major League Baseball would never allow the Rays to rebuild in Sunshine City, Hagan said.