Friday, March 23, 2018

A way out of Rays dilemma: both sides of bay win

So the Tampa Bay Rays want a new stadium in downtown Tampa, which has key Hillsborough politicians salivating.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has a contract that requires the team to play at Tropicana Field and a not-on-my watch attitude.

A civic calamity? Not compared to 10 percent unemployment.

The demise of Major League Baseball in our backyard? Not anytime soon.

An opportunity? Just maybe.

On Tuesday, Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will have one of their infrequent, private sit-downs. Who knows if either is inclined to step back from their line in the sand?

But having studied and written about this issue for four years, it occurs to me that one rarely discussed catalyst could lead them to common ground.

Spring training.

Those gentle games of March once brought grace and continuity to downtown St. Petersburg. Maybe now they offer a shot at compromise.

In the spirit of disclosure, I must note that my wife and I own a four-person office building catty-corner from St. Petersburg's police station. This idea conceivably could add value to that property.

But really, I have no dog in this fight, other than being a baseball fan, taxpayer and a 40-year resident of St. Petersburg.

This is just one scenario, stemming from hours and hours of thought:

• St. Petersburg amends its contract to allow the Rays to cut a stadium deal in Hillsborough.

• If the Rays leave Tropicana Field, they bring spring training back to Al Lang Stadium.

• The Trop is demolished, remaining bonds paid off, and the site sold for development.

• If interested parties cannot craft a master plan by some deadline — say five or six years — the contract reverts to its present form and chips fall where they may.

Here's why it makes sense, including for taxpayers:

Demographics suggest the stadium is badly located unless light rail somehow materializes. As the Tampa Bay area grows east and north, downtown St. Petersburg slips farther and farther from the population center. Though the region lacks a true urban core, where a tight concentration of companies could crank out season tickets, downtown Tampa comes closest.

The Trop is widely perceived within Major League Baseball as the least amenable stadium outside of Oakland. It's unconnected to the outdoors. Concession areas are cut off from the field. Suites have terrible sight lines.

Fan and corporate support are suspect. Blame Vince Naimoli, blame the recession or blame the Rays' own disparaging comments about the Trop. But what matters most is how the Rays view the market, and they have lost faith in St. Petersburg.

In 2008, they were prepared to invest $150 million in a waterfront stadium because they believed fans would come if they produced a winning team. Last year, the team reached the playoffs for the third time and saw baseball's second-lowest attendance and dwindling TV viewership.

Sternberg suggests that his fellow owners will "vaporize'' the Rays without a new venue.

But that's tough to swallow. Baseball executives sometimes bluster about moving or contracting teams, but usually they honor their leases and work out new deals with existing regions. Among other things, many teams will ask their own cities for costly stadium renovations before 2027, when the Rays' contract with the city ends.

Support for public financing would suffer in Baltimore and Cincinnati if baseball starts breaking commitments.

A cutting-edge stadium in downtown Tampa could generate millions of dollars of new revenue for the Rays, boost the franchise value and solidify Sternberg as a long-run partner in the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is Major League Baseball.

But to cross the bay within the next decade, he probably will have offer something tangible in return. Foster is correct: A "just let us go" position that gives no recognition to St. Petersburg's investment is not good enough.

Time against St. Petersburg

Mayor Foster says he wants to protect the interests of St. Petersburg, as well he should. The Trop and the 15 years left on its contract are valuable city assets.

Yet they diminish each passing year.

Attendance likely would have to jump dramatically to entice Sternberg to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Pinellas County. Even then, city officials would have to risk voter wrath to finance a new stadium with a new round of taxes.

A new stadium will cost $500 million to $600 million this time, triple the cost of the Trop. Officials can shuffle money around to reduce direct tax burdens, but there's going to be a public price.

Sure, downtown Tampa and its traffic snarls might be a disaster. Just imagine the Lightning, Rays and Les Miz playing all on the same night.

But focusing on those flaws is futile as long as the Rays hanker for Tampa. St. Petersburg officials can try to stretch out hometown baseball for another decade or so. They can try to extract compensation. But so far there's no clear route to actually keeping the team in the long run.

Meanwhile, the city loses leverage as each successive year approaches 2027.

There is a sadness to this. It's like being jilted 15 years into a marriage you hoped would endure. And it's certainly not what civic leaders imagined years ago when they braved the unknown and built a stadium on speculation.

But it is reality.

A win-win?

The downside to St. Petersburg letting the Rays move to Tampa is obvious. Out-of-town tourists send a trickle of taxes into city coffers. A short hop to the game beats fighting Tampa traffic.

Possible upsides take a little more thought.

Redeveloping the Trop site could further transform downtown. Housing, retail, office, manufacturing or museums could draw in millions of tax dollars and boost surrounding property values.

A stadium and parking do neither. In fact, the city loses $1 million to $2 million a year on baseball by paying for traffic control and insurance.

In 2008, a developer offered the city $65 million for the Trop site, which illustrates its value in a strong economy. Huge chunks of urban land don't come around very often. A similar price could finance the second phase of the Pier project or build a new police station. With adjustments to the Trop's special development district, it could even reduce taxes.

A Tampa stadium also would eliminate any chance St. Petersburg residents would pay another round of taxes for a new stadium. It would eliminate any prospect of losing the team to Charlotte or Portland after the contract expires.

Fans could still attend games in person and watch on TV — and television is mainly how they interact with the team anyway. Beer doesn't cost $8 at home.

Now add spring training to that mix.

Al Lang would need a major upgrade. It has deteriorated badly and needs more comfortable seats, bigger locker rooms and handy concession areas.

Think Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater.

Pinellas County hotel taxes underwrote Bright House, as well as upgrades to Grant Field in Dunedin. St. Petersburg could expect similar support.

That would be a lot cheaper than financing a major-league stadium, and St. Petersburg and the county could still reap economic benefit in the regular season when out-of-town fans stay at the beach or visit the Dalí as they follow their beloved Red Sox south.

Spring training stadiums often carry a bonus — minor league baseball. The Rays do not control where their minor league affiliates play, but an updated Al Lang would be a magnet.

Practice fields would be a hurdle. Modern spring training stadiums usually have four or five adjacent, which lets management monitor players without busing them all over town.

The Al Lang parking lot could hold one practice field, creating more green space and activity on the waterfront. A redeveloped Trop site could hold a few more.

Dogs and Frisbee fans would like that during the off-season.

Prospects in Tampa

Cities trying to lure professional sports usually offer teams better deals than cities trying to keep them. That points to Tampa even though Hillsborough's hotel and community taxes already shoulder large burdens for existing sports venues.

Tampa's corporate presence will be critical to the next Rays stadium. Businesses buy two-thirds of season tickets in the average major-league city, but only a third here.

This time around, the Rays will have to contribute a big chunk of their own money, which they did not at the Trop. And even in Tampa, they run considerable risk that attendance would still languish or tail off after a honeymoon.

A strong business community can offload some of that risk by pledging years of season ticket sales and luxury suite leases.

It's no given that business leaders and politicians can pull off a new stadium anywhere in the Tampa Bay area. Tea Party is no longer just a history lesson about Bostonians polluting a harbor.

Politicians must balance how baseball enhances quality of life versus the cost of keeping the team. That evaluation could lead to a harsh answer: Go ahead and move to San Antonio.

More likely, Hillsborough interests will craft a deal, because that's what major-league regions always do. For the residents' sake, the challenge is to tap the least onerous funding sources — like a car rental taxes — and then squeeze the Rays as much as possible.

If the deal gets done quickly — say with construction beginning by 2015 — the region still retains lots of leverage. Maybe the Rays have to kick in $200 million or $225 million instead of the $150 million they proposed for the waterfront in 2008.

If the current stalemate stretches on and on and then a new stadium gets built on either side of the bay, the Rays gain the upper hand, politicians may panic and taxpayers will be more likely to take it on the chin.

St. Petersburg officials sometimes talk of a big payday for letting the Rays explore Tampa. But finding money for a stadium in cash-strapped Hillsborough would be challenge enough. This isn't New York or St. Louis, where baseball generates tons of wealth. An owner, however rich, is unlikely to plow lots of money into two cities.

That's why spring training and developing the Trop site could make an effective peace offering. St. Petersburg gets a big return at little cost to the Rays.


For St. Petersburg, spring training and minor league baseball would be the icing. Intensive use of the Trop site is the cake. That was true for the 2008 waterfront proposal and would be just as true if the Rays moved to Tampa.

In any contract amendment, the city could seek protection against the economy wallowing another half decade. Empty asphalt between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 16th streets wouldn't do. Maybe construction doesn't proceed in Tampa unless it proceeds in St. Petersburg as well. Maybe the city retains veto power over any new stadium deal.

These moving parts would require skillful negotiations, which is what the Rays do best. If they can turn $50 million payrolls into playoff runs, maybe they can forge a regional settlement to suit everyone.

But they need freedom to have at it.

Come Tuesday, Foster could say, "There's something I want.''

Or Sternberg could say, "I have something to offer.''

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at [email protected]

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