The imaginative Ybor City ballpark proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays fits nicely into the 21st century vision of a sophisticated city and would secure major league baseball’s future for the entire region. It also carries an eye-catching cost that will have to be fairly shared by the franchise, the business community and government. To transform this from artist renderings to reality is going to require more leadership from the public and private sector to come up with creative financing options in the next six months.
To their credit, the Rays have followed through on a pledge to design a compact, modern stadium that fits into the neighborhood. There would be a translucent roof, plenty of windows that open to views of Ybor City, the port and downtown. There would be varied seating options in different configurations, wide concourses and gathering spaces that would distinguish it from other stadiums. At first glance, this would be a graceful blend of the smaller ballparks of old with new fan sensibilities and modern technology.
Even better is the Rays’ reaffirmation that the stadium should be a true community asset that would be open year-round. There would be retail and restaurants at street level, and there would be potential opportunities for the public to use the outfield, workout facilities and kitchen areas. Imagine work spaces with Wi-Fi, coffee bars, yoga classes and other amenities that bring people together in the off season. It’s an alluring pitch that strengthens the argument for a reasonable investment of public money into a transformational project.
The challenge, of course, is negotiating who pays how much to cover the $892 million cost of the project. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Wednesday he expects the team will contribute more than the $150 million he suggested last year. He said he doesn’t envision the Rays paying half of the total cost, but he said that could change depending on the level of support by the business community and other economic factors. Regardless of the exact number, to win the public and political support needed to pull this off the Rays are going to have to cover a significant portion of the cost.
By this fall, the separate Rays 100 effort to build financial support from the business community also is going to have to show real progress. Business leaders from the entire region are going to have to step up to preserve this regional asset. Just like strong transportation networks and vibrant cultural arts, professional sports are part of the fabric of thriving urban environments.
The most difficult challenge is coming up with a significant amount of public money for the ballpark without tapping sources that would be politically unpopular or more appropriately allocated to other needs such as transportation and education. Some stadium funding could come from Hillsborough’s resort tax on hotel rooms. More could come from tax increment financing, or a food and beverage tax in the Ybor City area that will benefit from the project. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn suggests there could be a half-dozen or more sources of public revenue that will have to be cobbled together, and that may be a conservative estimate.
So think of this as a three-legged stool for financing a ballpark: The Rays, the community and government. All three legs have to be strong. Cut short any one of them, and the whole stool collapses.
There is no time clock in baseball, but there is one on this project. The Rays’ agreement with the city of St. Petersburg that lets the franchise look for a new home in Hillsborough County expires at the end of the year. A new Tampa mayor will be elected next spring, and that person will have other priorities to juggle as they settle into office. By Christmas, it should be clear whether the public support and the financing options are viable enough to make this work.
Tampa Bay should not be the next region to lose its major league baseball franchise and regret it later. The Rays have offered a compelling vision for securing the franchise’s long-term future here. It’s up to the public and private sectors to work with the franchise to build the three-legged stool to make that vision a reality.