TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday unveiled a design for an Ybor City ballpark with huge windows that would open to let in a breeze and a translucent roof topped by a distinctive wing-like canopy.
But no one was ready to answer the obvious question: Could the stadium project's $892 million cost keep the team's vision from taking flight?
The Rays wouldn't say at a news conference how much the team intends to contribute. And a number of elected officials said afterward that taxpayers won't be footing the enormous cost of building a "next-gen" ballpark whose roof promises spectacular views of summer lightning storms.
Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said an Ybor home represented the "best opportunity" for the Rays' long-term success.
"We believe that baseball cannot only survive but thrive here," Sternberg told an invitation-only crowd of more than 200. "It's not always going to be sunshine and roses … but we're confident, we're committed and we believe we can get this done with all of your help."
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the ballpark would be a fantastic addition to the city, linking Ybor and downtown.
But the mayor said Tampa will continue to thrive with or without baseball. With little public appetite to pay for a ballpark with taxes, elected leaders will have to find "creative ways" to fund the project, he said.
"I think there's a value to this; I'm going to do everything I can to keep them here and find a way to do this deal," he said. "But I also have to recognize it may not be doable and we'll walk away from this."
Buckhorn wasn't alone in his caution. The crowd murmured approval throughout much of the 50-minute presentation: the prospect of fresh air on cool nights and tear-up-the-script ways to take in a game, including seats in the midst of fountains and a large patio behind home plate where fans can mingle as fastballs thwack into a catcher's mitt nearby. But the crowd grew silent as Rays Chief Development Officer Melanie Lenz walked through the cost.
Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who is running for mayor, had a typically mixed first impression.
"I love the ballpark. I think it looks terrific. The price tag? I'm not sure where the money is going to come from," Suarez said.
Council member Luis Viera added: "We're dating the idea; we're not yet married. Now we're seeing the cost of the engagement ring. It certainly gives you pause."
The city could be asked to contribute some or all of the $83 million earmarked for infrastructure improvements, including water, sewer and utility lines, a pedestrian walkway over Adamo Drive and a 1,000-space parking garage.
"We've got a lot of other priorities," said council member Guido Maniscalco, who also praised the ballpark design. "I don't know. Public money for a project like this when the city has so many other issues?"
Hillsborough County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Les Miller both said they were impressed by the proposal.
"They knocked it out of the park," Murman said. "Once the community sees this, hopefully they will come forward and want to invest."
Hotel taxes are among the potential sources of revenue that have been discussed for a new ballpark. Another option is a plan being worked on by County Administrator Mike Merrill to get developers to help with the cost in exchange for the rights for adjacent commercial and retail construction.
Sternberg said surrounding development could help pay for some of the ballpark — which would be Major League Baseball's most intimate, with just 28,216 seats — but said the Rays aren't in the development business.
"I'm not a landowner; I'm not a developer," he said. "I own a baseball team and I want to build a baseball stadium that's here for 50 to 100 years."
But it is still unclear what funding, if any, the county would be willing to commit to other than community redevelopment funds for infrastructure.
"The question still remains who will pay for it and what will the Rays bring to the table?" Miller said.
Still, despite doubts about financing, there was plenty of optimism in the room.
"I haven't seen a buzz like this in quite a while," Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman Steven Bernstein said after watching the Rays' presentation. The chamber would consider supporting a financing plan that includes public funds, he said.
"I think in a lot of ways we need to get it done, not just for Tampa but for Tampa Bay, for folks from Polk County all the way down to Manatee," he said. "It's going to take a group effort, but a lot of the leadership of the community was in this room today, and I saw a lot of heads nodding."
He acknowledged discussions about other initiatives — a potential transportation referendum, or efforts to raise more money for education — but those wouldn't necessarily draw from the same sources of money, he said, and could complement each other: A robust transportation system could serve a vibrant stadium, and a vibrant stadium would need good transportation options.
Attorney Ron Christaldi, who with Sykes Enterprises CEO Charles Sykes launched a nonprofit organization to bank land for the ballpark and started the Rays 100 to rally corporate support, said he was nervous before seeing the Rays' vision but impressed and excited afterward.
Through the Rays 100, "we have at least three people who have some serious interest in naming rights," which could be in the range of $10 million a year, Christaldi said. One potential sponsor has committed to "founders level" support of $1 million a year and others are "in play" for a similar commitments. Other businesses have talked about increasing their spending with the Rays.
The design revealed Tuesday, he said, should help in those discussions with potential corporate supporters.
"We've only scratched the surface in terms of talking to people," he said.
In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman issued a statement encouraging people to keep going to games at Tropicana Field.
"This is also another step in the process for the city of St. Petersburg," Kriseman said. "We are continuing to plan for a future both with and without a stadium at the Tropicana Field site."