TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Rays decided where its future lies, and it’s in Tampa.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced Friday that the team wants to build its next ballpark in Ybor City, the historic Latin neighborhood near downtown with baseball roots that go back a century.
If it comes to fruition — and it is still an "if" — within five years the Rays could leave St. Petersburg, the only home the team has known since its inaugural 1998 season.
"Ybor City is authentically Tampa Bay," Sternberg said at a news conference at the Tampa Baseball Museum. "It represents the finest opportunity for Major League Baseball to thrive in this region for generations to come.
"This," he said, "is where we want to be playing baseball."
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The chosen site for a new ballpark is a plot of warehouses and parking lots just north of the Ybor Channel. The 14-acres there are close to the vibrant, if not unwieldy, nightlife along E Seventh Avenue as well as the city’s urban core and the burgeoning Water Street Tampa project.
The selection comes two years after St. Petersburg granted the team permission to look for a new home in the region. The Ybor location has been at the top of the team’s list for at least six months, Sternberg said.
In Ybor City, Rays chief development officer Melanie Lenz said she sees "the potential for one of the most incredible neighborhood ballparks in America."
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The one-time cigar capital of the world was a beacon for Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants during the 20th century.
In recent years it has transformed into an eclectic community full of music, arts, bars, restaurants, coffee shops and a rush of new businesses and residents. Chickens roam the street by day; by night, it’s Tampa’s version of Bourbon Street.
It’s also the home of Al Lopez, Tampa’s first major league baseball player, and one of the only neighborhoods with architecture authentic to the city’s early days as a small port town.
A stadium there could also close the loop on the greater downtown area, connecting Ybor to the Channel District and the Riverwalk, which wraps around downtown, from Amalie Arena to Curtis Hixon Park to Ulele restaurant, back near the gates of Ybor.
"This is an urban fabric that doesn’t exist any other place," said Lenz, who is leading the team’s ballpark design efforts.
The area also has challenges.
Warehouses currently occupy that space. It is flanked to the west by an aging low-income housing complex called Tampa Park Apartments and the Selmon Expressway stands between the proposed site and views of the water. The nearby Ybor Channel is dotted with ship repair businesses. Blighted homes surround the neighborhood. Developments in downtown and Ybor have not yet stretched to that area. One of its closest neighbors is an Ikea. Another is a strip club.
But on Friday, as the Ybor roosters crowed and locals passed newly hung "Raybor City" signs, people could see the vision. After 30 years of failed attempts and balks, Tampa — the childhood home of Lou Pinella and Tony LaRussa, Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff — is the closet it has ever been to hosting a professional baseball team.
"Baseball is in our DNA," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
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So far, there have not been substantive negotiations on how to pay for a stadium that could cost more than $700 million. Sternberg said the team would contribute "a good amount of money" toward a financing agreement, but declined to offer specifics. He has floated $150 million in the past.
Buckhorn committed that "we’re not going to put the burden on the taxpayers." However, it could rely on growth in Ybor property tax collections spurred by the new ballpark.
Under the agreement with St. Petersburg, the Rays have until the end of the year to search for a new home. The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027. If the Rays leave before the end of 2022, it owes the city $3 million a year for the remainder of the lease. After that, the fee drops to $2 million a year.
Local businessman Charles Sykes and lawyer Ron Christaldi unveiled another major piece of the financial equation Friday: A campaign to gin up corporate support for the team’s relocation. Dubbed "Tampa Bay Rays 2020," the goal is to guarantee sponsorships and ticket sales and convince MLB that a team can thrive here.
"St. Pete corporate support and ticket sales have lagged," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has spent years trying to orchestrate a Rays move to Tampa. "I’m confident that won’t happen here."
Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart said he would back the Tampa Bay Rays 2020 effort with a commitment in the "seven digits." Another backer of the effort is Third Lake Capital, an investment fund and large Ybor City landowner run by the Wanek family, which owns Ashley Furniture, and Ken Jones, who served as president of the local host committee for the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Bringing the Rays to Ybor City, Jones said, would drive development throughout the historic district.
"We’re committed to this project in a very significant way," said Jones, the chairman and CEO of Third Lake Capital, though he declined to provide a figure.
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The Rays also still have to figure out exactly what they are going to build. And one of the major questions will be whether it has a retractable or fixed roof — which also begets the question: real or artificial turf.
Given that they’ve been working on this project for more than 10 years, it’s safe to assume they have some good ideas in mind.
Sternberg said expect a ballpark that "likely will be on the smaller side of stadiums.’’
The roof (and thus turf) question may be part of the financial puzzle, as it costs around $150-million more to make it retractable.
"We’re going to need a roof,’’ he said. "Retractable or fixed, we’ll see as the process goes along. No decision has been made.’’
Sternberg reiterated what the team has long said, that it envisions the stadium as being a "porous" community asset, allowing residents access on days when the team is not playing. That could include making the field, training and even food service areas available for use year-round.
While the team wants the stadium to fuse together with the historic neighborhood, it won’t have a dated feel.
"We look at this as a modern facility that is built for the next 30, 40, 50 years as opposed to the last 30 years,’’ Sternberg said.
With the Ybor Channel just south of the proposed site, Sternberg also sees an opportunity for water travel to and from games. It will take creativity, though, with the expressway overpass in the way.
"We’ve got ideas" to incorporate the water, Sternberg said, "A lot of really cool stuff. It wont necessarily all pan out, but we’re going to try everything we can."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman held out hope that the Rays decision is not final. He pointed to the financial hurdles still ahead for a Tampa ballpark — ones that don’t exist for his plan to build a new stadium at the Tropicana Field site.
But Sternberg said the team was not considering any other locations.
"This is our sole focus," he said, but he added: "Right now."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected]