PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg revealed some complications in his team's search for a new stadium on Thursday, yet said he's still confident they will find a new home in the Tampa Bay area.
What were the Rays' top five choices for a new stadium — three in Tampa and two in St. Petersburg — are unavailable. That may push the team's time line for finding a new site from August to the end of 2017.
"We had some ideas on locations that just weren't available, that I thought would have worked perfectly, but they're off the table,'' Sternberg said before the Rays' game at their spring training site in Port Charlotte. "So we're sort of moving down our list to Nos. 2, 3 and 4."
He likened the Rays' stadium search to a team setting up its pitching rotation.
"It's like starting pitchers, you have five of them and sometimes No. 4 is better than No. 2, but rarely better than No. 1," Sternberg said. "The No. 1 is the No. 1. I hate to be mixing these sort of metaphors, but it sort of works in this case.
"We did have a choice that we thought that was going to be ideal, a choice or two, and it was going to be unavailable. We would have had to flesh it out. But we're working and trying to find out what will be next best.''
As a result, Sternberg said the team doesn't know if it will find what he has previously described as a "pin-perfect" site. Later, he clarified his stance, saying he remained optimistic the team can find a stadium solution in the bay area.
"It's highly likely there will be a workable site,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times. "So I'm confident."
However, Sternberg's comments prompted a strong response from a key player in the effort to bring the Rays to Tampa.
"Unfortunately throughout the years the team hasn't shown enough sense of urgency to move on some of these locations," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said.
The Rays would dispute that. The St. Petersburg City Council did not allow the team to look beyond its current home of Tropicana Field, and across the bay, until January 2016. If the team had approached any other sites before then, it would have violated its lease with St. Petersburg.
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Four of the Rays' top sites that are unavailable have long been the focus of speculation: the Heights, a 43-acre mixed-use project taking shape in downtown Tampa along a bend in the Hillsborough River; Jefferson High School in Tampa's booming West Shore Business District; and two adjacent waterfront sites in downtown St. Petersburg, Albert Whitted Airport and Al Lang Stadium.
Sternberg confirmed those sites and mentioned a fifth that hasn't been discussed before: the Tampa Tribune's old headquarters along the Hillsborough River, which is being demolished to make way for an eight-story apartment complex. The 4.2 acre site sold in 2015 for $17.8 million, and the Rays would have needed to assemble more land to build a stadium along that part of the river.
There are all sorts of reasons why the first four sites wouldn't and couldn't work: The Heights' owners were never interested in a baseball stadium; Jefferson High is a nonstarter because of neighborhood and political opposition; St. Petersburg residents voted to keep the airport at Albert Whitted in 2003; and the Rays' 2008 proposal to build a new stadium at the Al Lang site was met with stiff opposition. Al Lang is also now being looked at as a Major League Soccer venue.
Hagan said Rays executives approached the owners of the Heights site about a year ago. But by that time, their plans to develop a 2.16 million square-foot development of office, residential and retail space had already coalesced. Heights developer Adam Harden has said repeatedly that his company did not consider making room for a potential Rays ballpark.
"A baseball stadium has never been in our plans," he texted.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who said he hadn't spoken to team officials in several months, said it was no secret that the Rays were interested in waterfront sites such as the Heights, but "that from day one was off the table" and "no one ever took that seriously" because the Heights' owners "weren't remotely interested."
"That's like looking at someone else's wife," Buckhorn said. "They're already married."
Said Hagan: "Bottom line is they waited too long to engage the owners there for that to become a possibility, but I can say they were definitely interested in the Heights site that was on the water and it was appealing to them."
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So what's left for the Rays to choose from in Tampa? There's the Tampa Park Apartments between downtown and Ybor City. There are more problematic sites far from downtown such as the Florida State Fairgrounds and the Tampa Greyhound Track.
St. Petersburg and Pinellas County officials said they haven't given up hope that the Rays will stay and play in a new stadium at a redeveloped Trop site or elsewhere on their side of the bay.
Buckhorn said it's up to the Rays to bring forward their preferred solution to keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.
Sternberg said the team is doing just that. He said the search process is "not being done in a vacuum'' and involves participation and cooperation from land owners, local officials and MLB, which he updates through commissioner Rob Manfred.
"We have to work with Major League Baseball to show them we have a pro forma (plan) that actually makes some sense to spend the next 50 years,'' Sternberg said.
He said there is no deadline to find a new site, except the deal with St. Petersburg that allows the team to look elsewhere expires in January 2019. Sternberg has said previously that he expected their search to conclude by August, but on Thursday he said it could take until the end of the year.
"Nobody wants this process to move quicker than we do," he said.
Interestingly, Sternberg noted how Atlanta Braves officials "surprised everyone" by working out a deal in relative secret in 2013 for their new $600 million home, SunTrust Park, "in the middle of the night, where there is this huge tract of land and discussions have happened. …
"You need a big chunk of land for that and you need to be working with a municipality that has got their stuff together and ready to go and is really looking to get something done.''
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.