Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Business

Romano: Everything you need to know about the Rays and Ybor City

Finally, the perfect spot for a baseball stadium in Tampa Bay. It only took 35 years and a collective case of desperation to find.

I jest, of course. The still-unannounced site on the edge of Ybor City isn't really the perfect spot for baseball. Unfortunately, the Florida Aquarium, Amalie Arena, the convention center and every other waterfront business in downtown Tampa claimed most of the perfect spots a while back.

What the Ybor City site represents is the best of what's left. Or maybe what's obtainable. Either way, a Tampa Bay Rays fan had better hope a financing plan can be cobbled together because it doesn't seem like Major League Baseball is terribly impressed with other bay area alternatives. And we've been looking, off and on, since the 1980s.

So as we wait for the final pieces of the Ybor plan to come together before an official declaration of the site sometime this fall or winter, here's some questions you might have.

What makes Ybor City the best site?

First, think about the Rays' main objective. They want to sell more season tickets to more corporations. That means getting as close to the market's business center as possible. And that means downtown Tampa. Since most of downtown is already accounted for, Ybor City is the next-best alternative.

Also, think about previous sites the Rays considered but had to abandon for various reasons. Al Lang Stadium? Albert Whitted Airport? The old Tampa Tribune site? Hills-borough River near the Straz Center? What do they all have in common? They are waterfront properties. Since baseball, by itself, has not taken off in Tampa Bay, the idea is to build a stadium that becomes a destination point.

While the Ybor site may not qualify as waterfront, it could be within a few blocks of the Ybor Channel. And that could be a great excuse to bring in restaurants and bars on land that is, frankly, under-utilized right now. The Tampa Port could, conceivably, find alternative venues for ship repairs and other marine business currently in that spot.

Is there room in Ybor City?

The short answer is yes. Developers have been buying up land with the idea of turning site control over to Hillsborough County for what will likely be a nominal fee. The payoff for the developers is other land they have acquired will suddenly become far more valuable if a baseball stadium is built.

The Rays, meanwhile, will not require a ton of space. What they want is a stadium that can be integrated into Ybor City. A neighborhood stadium, so to speak. In that sense, think of a modern version of Wrigley Field. It will be small, maybe 32,000 seats. And it will have some of the flavor of Ybor and its history.

At most, the stadium will likely occupy 15 acres.

It would be within walking distance of Ybor City garages, and probably no more than a mile from Channelside Bay Plaza.

What does this mean for Tropicana Field?

There was a time when I, and a lot of others, thought rebuilding on the Tropicana site would be a safe fallback position if land or financing could not be found in Tampa. I don't think that's likely now.

Twenty seasons of baseball later, the Rays are a disaster at the gate. And that's not hyperbole. Tampa Bay will finish in the bottom three for attendance for the seventh consecutive season, and that includes three seasons when the team won 90 or more games. Sadly, that's not even the worst part.

It's the gap between Tampa Bay and everyone else. If you double the Rays' attendance, they would still be behind 14 other teams. That is a remarkable chasm. And it's been that way the past three years.

So it's hard to imagine that a new stadium on the same site would boost attendance, or franchise value, enough to be worth the investment. I'm not even sure the Rays would agree to a new stadium there even if they didn't have to pay a dime for it.

That's because the team's value could potentially be higher if the Rays just wait for the Tropicana Field lease to end in 2027. At that point, the franchise wouldn't be tied to a ballpark and could be sold to an out-of-market owner.

So is there another possibility in Pinellas?

Owner Stu Sternberg said at least one other site remains a possibility on that side of the bay. All indications are that is the Derby Lane site, but that still carries lots of questions. For the moment, Ybor City seems like the clear favorite.

Does that mean this is a done deal?

Far from it. Stadium costs are growing rapidly. When the Rays first proposed a stadium on the Al Lang site in 2007, the cost was likely in the $450 million range.

By the time construction would start on a new stadium in Ybor — depending on the retractable roof situation — the cost could be closer to $800 million.

Hillsborough officials will likely expect it to be a 50-50 split of public and private dollars, but it's hard to imagine the Rays investing more than $200 million. That means there had better be some creative financing involved.

In other words, the battle is just beginning.

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