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Tampa Bay Rays make a last stand, with future now up to St. Pete City Council

As St. Petersburg's governing body takes up a $6 billion team-led redevelopment with a stadium, the Rays president says a move — out of Tampa Bay — remains possible without an agreement.


  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 10:30 a.m. May 11, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The Tampa Bay Rays started the 2023 season with 13 consecutive wins.
The Tampa Bay Rays started the 2023 season with 13 consecutive wins.
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The Tampa Bay Rays took a major step last week in what is going to be a long process when it went before a St. Petersburg City Council committee to present its $6 billion plan for a massive redevelopment project that includes a new ballpark.

The team’s ownership group, along with its development partner Hines and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, pitched the council’s Committee of the Whole on its plan and answered questions about what it is looking to build on the 87-acre Historic Gas Plant District property where Tropicana Field now stands.

The meeting was the first time the council was able to publicly dig into the plans of what is likely going to be one of the most transformative projects in the city’s history and could not only restore a significant neighborhood that was wiped out but could ultimately decide the future of the Rays in the city.

The importance of the sides coming together was not lost on those in attendance. 

Deborah Figgs-Sanders, the council chairperson, called it a “very important and momentous day." Welch said, “I think it is safe to say it's probably the most anticipated (Committee of the Whole) in in our history of public service.”

Tampa Bay Rays team owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch have worked out a deal to keep the team in the city and bring needed development.
Photo by Mark Wemple

Despite its importance, the meeting was really just one step in what is going to be a months-long process as council members study the details of the agreements to determine the future of the project and the team.

“As we're talking, please don't forget that we have accomplished something truly extraordinary here,” Brian Auld, the Rays president, said.

“This project, which involves public land, a major league baseball team and honoring the Historic Gas plant neighborhood and all that entails, has earned support from every corner of our community.”

(The Rays didn't respond to several requests from the Business Observer in recent weeks to make team owner Stuart Sternberg or Auld available for an interview before the meetings.)


What's at stake

What the Rays are proposing is a massive 8 million-square-foot multi-use development that would deliver more than 5,400 residential units; 1,250 workforce and attainable housing units; 1.4 million square feet of office and medical space; 750,000 square feet of retail space; 750 hotel rooms; and 14 acres of parks and open space. This along with the Woodson African American Museum of Florida and an amphitheater.

Almost everyone agrees, it will be a huge loss to St. Petersburg if the Rays were to leave." –Brian Auld, Rays president

The cornerstone would be a new $1.3 billion stadium for the Rays that will be built with about $600 million in funds from the city and Pinellas County and at least that much from the team. The team will also be responsible for all cost overruns.

The acreage for the ballpark and two parking garages will be owned by the county which will lease it to the city. The city will then sublease it to the Rays for 30 years, with an option to extend that for 40 years. 

The May 9 meeting was focused only the approximately 67 acres of the project that do not include the stadium. The stadium portion of the plan will be taken up in separate Committee of the Whole meeting in coming weeks.

A final vote on the agreements is expected to happen later this summer.

While the conversation, which went on for more than eight hours, was mostly cordial, there were sharp questions from council members who pushed the team and the city’s administration on the development agreements.

The questions ranged from who would be responsible if Sternberg, the team’s owner, sold out to what happens if the developers failed to follow through on commitments.

One council member, Richie Floyd, who represents District 8, pushed back on what guarantees the city had that it could hold developers accountable for the affordable housing component of the plan.

Floyd focused on a point in the agreement that says the city will be responsible to provide “reasonable and necessary subsidies for the construction of affordable and workforce housing.”

“I'm under the impression that this means that — in this current agreement that (what) we've got before us outlines sort of a framework for affordable housing, but it's not actually got an affordable housing deal in it at all — we're going to have to go and create those deals later on,” he said.

“And they are going to require reasonable and necessary subsidies from the city.”


Is the end near?

The Rays have long looked to find a permanent home that is not Tropicana Field, at one point, in 2018, announcing a deal to move to Ybor City and coming close to executing on a plan to split the season between Montreal and St. Petersburg — with a new stadium in each city.

The prospects for the Rays finally settling in St. Petersburg improved in January 2023, though, when Mayor Ken Welch chose the team and Hines to lead the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site in the city’s downtown Historic Gas Plant District.

The district, where Welch grew up, was once a thriving Black community razed to make way for Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay Rays co-president Brian Auld has led the team to become one of the most innovative in Major League baseball.
Photo by Mark Wemple

About eight months later, on Sept. 18, the team unveiled plans for the new stadium-centered redevelopment on the site and adopted the motto “Here to Stay” at an officials-studded event that seemed more of a victory lap than an initial step.

Now the real first public step has been taken and council members in the coming weeks and months will be left to decide when, how or, even if, to move forward.

“We know that not everyone loves every aspect of this deal," Auld said May 9.

“How could they?” That's not how compromise designed to appeal to wide and diverse constituencies work. But almost everyone agrees, it will be a huge loss to St. Petersburg if the Rays were to leave.”

 

author

Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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