TAMPA — Before sunrise on Monday morning, Tim Leiweke walked around the Channel District-Ybor City area that could someday house a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Leiweke, who has had a hand in building 18 stadiums and arenas around the country, saw the appeal. The area, just north of the Ybor Channel and Selmon Expressway, is close to both downtown and the port.
"You all have something that's really wonderful that we all wish we had in places like L.A.," Leiweke told the Tampa Bay Times. "It's called water."
But, he said, "There's a lot of work they have to do to connect."
Leiweke is the co-founder of Oak View Group, a stadium consultant and investment company, where he's part of efforts to build new arenas in Miami and Seattle. He previously served as president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings and part of the Los Angeles Lakers, and later in a similar role for the company that owned the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA's Toronto Raptors.
He's no stranger to the Tampa Bay area. His younger brother, Tod Leiweke, was the CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning and he considers Lightning owner Jeff Vinik the "best owner in professional sports today. Period."
And he believes baseball can work in Tampa Bay, despite recent history. Just look at how the Lightning have turned around their franchise, Leiweke told the Times before speaking at a panel put on by the University of South Florida's Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program.
Attendance at Rays games perennially ranks at the bottom of major league teams, but Leiweke doesn't believe that's necessarily representative of the appetite here.
"Before we judge the marketplace, let's make sure we at least take an assessment of (Tropicana Field)," he said. "That's not the best experience in major league baseball."
Tampa and Hillsborough County are expected to soon announce their proposed location for a potential Rays ballpark. Local officials have zeroed in on the area between downtown and Ybor, bridging the city's nightlife hub with the proposed entertainment district offered by Vinik's planned Water Street Tampa.
Meanwhile, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has proposed a new ballpark at a redeveloped Tropicana Field, though it seems increasingly unlikely the team would risk committing long-term to a site that has produced poor results to date. Other locations in Pinellas County may still be in play.
Leiweke declined to opine on which side of Tampa Bay is best to host a baseball team, but he does have a preference on where officials and the front office should look.
"I put stadiums where they have the greatest economic impact," he said. "So when you build a stadium away from an urban core, that's a mistake.''
The location Tampa officials are considering largely meets that criterion. But Tampa's urban core is relatively sleepy after 6 p.m. And while weekend events and Lightning games have added a buzz to downtown in recent years, it is still mostly vacant outside of work hours.
Leiweke needed to search on his phone Sunday night just to find an open place to eat near his downtown hotel. In most major cities, a short walk would yield several options.
"Your (hockey) arena is the greatest statement about what the Rays face," he said. "The glass wall is facing the canal and then all of the electricity, the signs, the banners, are all on the plaza. The part that faces your city is a blank wall, cold as hell."
The planned Water Street Tampa could change that. Vinik and his partner, Bill Gates' Cascade Investments, have proposed a live-work-play community that will add housing, office space, restaurants, parks and hotels.
The Rays should try to tap into that, Leiweke said, and ensure their ballpark flows into that project. As it stands, the area between downtown and the rumored site is disjointed — divided by the expressway, a sea of parking lots, a Riverwalk that ends at Channelside Plaza, a gigantic flour mill and an industrial channel dotted with ship repair businesses.
"If you could just continue to figure out a way to make it walkable, make it livable, make it bikeable and make it green-friendly, you'll turn out to be one of the wonderful points of destination in all the world," he said. "Every snowbird in Canada will want to watch the Toronto Blue Jays when they come and play."
Rays brass have talked about building a destination ballpark for both local fans and baseball junkies — a ballpark that changes the experience of attending a game.
New York Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, who joined Leiweke on the USF panel, said the Mets' Citi Field created space for younger fans to play bag toss while watching the game and the organization took advantage of modern technology to enhance security. Celebrity chefs hold events there. And there's a Shake Shack.
In practice, the Mets in New York don't have the same issues with ticket sales or corporate participation as a small-market team like the Rays. The decision here on where to build a ballpark and how to design it must be near perfect, Leiweke said.
"In Tampa Bay there's not a huge margin for error," Leiweke said. "You have a marketplace that's smaller. You better make sure you're right."
One of the largest hurdles will be financing a stadium in an environment where voters are increasingly opposed to tax-payer-funded stadiums.
That's especially true in Florida, where the memories of the Miami Marlins ballpark deal are still fresh. Taxpayers there could end up paying more than $2 billion when the debts are finally paid off. Already, a bill has advanced in Tallahassee that will prevent new stadiums on public land.
Leiweke faced these headwinds while working with David Beckham to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami.
"There are bad partners like there are in any business," Leiweke said. "The proper kind of public support when put into a partnership with the right kind of guy, like Jeff Vinik, that's when these things really make sense. That's what the Rays should look for, that kind of model."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.