It's hardly a done deal. There's not even a public proposal on the table. But an under-used area between downtown Tampa and Ybor City could be an excellent site for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. A compact stadium with the right mix of development around it could be the missing link between a resurgent Ybor and the massive Water Street development. Hillsborough County government, which is putting together a proposal, should get the details nailed down and start a public discussion sooner rather than later that involves the Rays and the entire community.
The Tampa Bay Times' Steve Contorno reported last week about the back-and-forth in recent months between the county and its lawyers and the Rays and its consultants, who are exploring potential stadium sites in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Officials hope to make an announcement soon, but both sides are keeping quiet about key details, from the exact locations being considered to financing options. Records and interviews show that those involved have also recently spoken with Tampa landowners about assembling a package of parcels that could host a ballpark; one site drawing particular interest is northeast of downtown and several blocks south of Ybor's main entertainment strip.
The area has several pluses. A barren stretch of warehouses and industrial space could be transformed into a lively district connecting downtown with historic Ybor City with a baseball stadium as the centerpiece. With Jeff Vinik's emerging Water Street development to the south, the Rays could fill seats from the thousands of new residents in the area, while fans could enjoy the new amenities in the channel district, from parks, bars and restaurants to retail. A trolley already connects both areas, with access to parking garages on either end. Sports stadiums are best situated in urban environments that are walkable and accessible by public transit, and this site would meet those goals.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn describes the site as "far better" than another mentioned site, an area on the eastern edge of the Ybor entertainment district, near 22nd Street. That area has better interstate access, but it is far away from the action. Officials have also met with the leaders of a nonprofit that owns the Tampa Park Apartments housing complex, just west of the gateway into Ybor City. That site has an awkward footprint and building in a historically African-American community would involve moving residents, churches and other institutions.
The financing of any deal will be as important as its location, and even this warehouse area between Ybor City and downtown would have its challenges with moving large numbers of cars in and out on game days. Those are just two reasons why it's important for this conversation to move into the open soon. A stadium effort as expensive and comprehensive as this one has to be evaluated and refined in public to build the consensus needed to make it work. Another reason for more urgency is a sense of frustration among other team owners and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred about the plodding pace of the stadium site search. It's time for Tampa Bay to make clear that the community intends on keeping the Rays here for the long term.
This site between Ybor City and downtown Tampa has plenty of positives as a potential new home for the Rays. It also is much closer to Tampa Bay's population center than Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, and that is going to become even more apparent as Hillsborough County and east Pasco County continue to grow. The Rays are a regional asset, and it should be a top priority to keep Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay by finding the best stadium site possible -- regardless of whether that site is in Hillsborough or Pinellas.