The Tampa Bay Rays officially recently unveiled plans for a new $1.3 billion stadium that will be built with about $600 million in funds from the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County and at least that much from the team.
The plan, crafted to keep the Rays in the city for at least the next 34 years, ends a more than 15-year effort to find a permanent home for the team. It calls for a 30,000-seat, domed stadium to be built near where Tropicana Field stands today.
Construction on the ballpark is expected to begin in late 2024 and completed in time for opening day of the 2028 season. Rays officials told the Business Observer that means demolition of Tropicana Field cannot begin until the new stadium is finished.
The new stadium is part of a $6 billion multi-use development expected to bring housing, businesses and life to the 86-acre Historic Gas Plant District that will in one way completely transform the area and in another restore a historically Black neighborhood lost when Tropicana was built.
The plan calls for a percentage of minority contractors to be hired and for there to be 1,200 affordable housing units.
"Major League Baseball is here to stay. Right here," says Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. He was one of a handful of team and local officials who spoke at a a Sept. 19 event that introduced the new plans.
"It has not been an easy road," Sternberg says. "While our commitment to remain in Tampa Bay has been steadfast, the journey has been a bumpy one. Eighteen years ago, one of the first things I said upon becoming the owner of the then Devil Rays was that we wouldn't be playing at Tropicana Field in 2027. Well, I was certainly wrong about that."
If this seems like déjà vu to you, that’s because it is.
In 2018, the team announced plans for an $892 million stadium to be built in Ybor City with similar fanfare. The plan, however, failed during negotiations with the city and Hillsborough County. At that time, with the Rays facing a looming deadline to inform St. Petersburg about its future in the city, the team blamed a lack of progress on talks, a sentiment echoed by MLB, which said the proposal lacked specifics.
The team then flirted with splitting its seasons between Tampa or St. Petersburg, or St. Pete and Montreal (yes, Montreal, Quebec — in far-off Canada), with a smaller stadium in each city. The plan, as outlandish as it may have seemed, was on its way to becoming a reality when MLB's executive committee nixed it Jan. 20, 2022. That left backers disappointed on both sides of the border — and Ray's ownership seriously wondering if the team had a future in Tampa Bay.
These are just two examples of other failed plans over many years to build a baseball stadium at various places in the region.
This was happening as the team thrived on the field, becoming a perennial contender, while attendance at Tropicana Field continued to be among the worst in all of baseball — an embarrassment for fans who cared and a great disappointment to ownership.
But team and city officials cite changing dynamics in the market, the development portion of the agreement and increasing attendance this season when making a case for why this plan will work when a string of others have failed.
"This is a very different time for the Rays and for St. Petersburg and for Pinellas County," says Matt Silverman, the team’s president. "We're a much more mature market, and a much more mature region and a much more mature city. When you look ahead and you think about the next several decades, this is a great place for Major League Baseball. The trajectory of this community is so much greater than it was five years ago, 10 years ago. And all the different arrows are pointing in the right direction."
One fundamental difference is rather than just building a ballpark, the development project is expected to create the type of destination where fans will come before games, and stay after. The project aims to offer the kinds of shops, restaurants and housing that attracts people — and their money — year-round.
Work to be done
While the unveiling of the stadium was treated as a celebration with the motto "Here to Stay" on nearly every surface, the reality is both the St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission have to sign off on the deal before it becomes official.
The county's $300 million share is expected to come from bed tax revenue, while the city's portion will come from existing tax revenue and bonds. City officials say there will be no tax increases going to pay for the ballpark, and some of the money will come from funds legally earmarked for economic development use only.
City and county officials and the team said last week that members of both the government bodies were consulted throughout the process and involved with negotiating the agreement. All expressed confidence publicly that the plan would win approval when it comes up for a vote early next year.
One aspect that could help finance the stadium is better and consistent attendance. The Rays have sometimes struggled with filling the seats, and one reason critics point to is the location in Pinellas County. Could stronger marketing help fix that? The Business Observer asked a panel of city, county and Rays officials about its plan to pull in more Rays fans into the new stadium.
"We try to do three things at the Tampa Bay Rays," says Brian Auld, Rays president. "Win baseball games, provide a world-class fan experience and be a good corporate partner. And while we don't pretend to be perfect at any one of those, we think we're pretty darn good."
Aggressive marketing, affordable tickets and appealing to families will be key to the strategy. And as the Rays clinch at least a wild card slot in 2023 (their fifth straight post-season appearance), Auld notes that the team is seeing children of lifelong fans show up at the stadium, something the young team has not seen before. (The team made its on-field, regular season debut March 31, 1998, an 11-6 loss to the Detroit Tigers.)
Getting shovels into the ground will help that intergenerational fan base "take root," says Auld, and over the next 30 years, he expects attendance to take off.
On the government side, Pinellas County's commissioners seem to be behind the deal. Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long, for one, gave a passionate speech in favor of the Rays staying in the county.
The interlocal agreement between the county and city requires a board vote, held at a regular meeting.
"I believe there is general consensus with the city, county and team," Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton says in a Sept. 21 interview with the Business Observer. "We have to finalize all documents and seek approval by the city council and county commission, but they provided guidance individually throughout so I don't anticipate any problems."
Burton says the county money will come from visitor-bed tax funds, "which are restricted in use to tourism-related capital projects."
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch also notes city money will come from funds that cannot be widely used on other parts of the budget, such as social services and police.
While invariably there will be critics, Welch says this deal presented the best opportunity for the city. He challenged naysayers to come up with something better.
"One suggestion was just to keep the land. Well, we've kept the land for 40 years. But let's talk about community impact," he says.
"If you want to 1,200 units of affordable housing," Welch says. "If you want a 30% goal for minority contracting on that $6 billion of investment. If you want those things that we now have an agreement to bring forward, what is the alternative plan to get there? To date, I have heard of no alternative plan that will get us there."