A Major League Baseball team, one former St. Petersburg official said nearly two decades ago, would "light the tail on the rocket." How responsible the publicly financed Tropicana Field and its tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays, were for igniting the city's downtown renaissance is less relevant today than the ominous counterpoint. What would happen if the baseball team left?
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, to his credit, has made no such direct threat. He has been clear about his dissatisfaction with the Trop, but he has offered his plan for a new $450-million waterfront stadium with no ultimatum. So leave it to Steve Raymund, former chief executive of Tech Data and co-chairman of a community task force analyzing the deal, to point out the elephant in the dugout.
"The reality is that the Rays say they need a new stadium to remain viable, that it's critical to their organization," Raymund said Tuesday. "If it's not here, it'll be somewhere else."
The city appears to be well-protected financially by its Tropicana lease, which doesn't expire until 2027. But if the new stadium plan fails, baseball-hungry cities won't wait nearly 20 years to court the Rays. If past history is any indication, the cities will also come with wallets wide open — even if paying off the lease is part of the deal.
This is not to say that such a prospect should paralyze the elected officials in St. Petersburg and Pinellas who are being asked to make tough decisions about extending their annual $11-million commitment of sales and tourist taxes that subsidizes the current stadium. But so far City Council members seem more interested in counting pro and con yard signs than on the potential loss of a major league franchise. At the least, such a prospect deserves a prominent line on any public policy ledger that weighs the pluses and minuses of the Rays' stadium deal.
The loss of team and stadium jobs and the loss of 81 game days and the corresponding hotel and restaurant use can be computed into fairly reliable economic numbers. What is much harder to measure is the extent to which the team is a factor in other business decisions that affect St. Petersburg and Pinellas and in the overall quality life of the entire area. The viability of existing and new hotels would most certainly be affected. But could the loss of the team lead to lost opportunities in business relocations? Could it shake the faith of banks that provide the capital for corporate growth?
Raymund thinks that the recent surge in development and commerce downtown has led some residents to believe the loss of the Rays would not diminish their quality of life — that "we've got enough fuel in the tank to pull us along." But he knows enough about the business world to know how fickle investors can be and how quickly fortunes can change.
St. Petersburg has a history with professional baseball, in one form or another, that dates back nearly a century. The arrival of the Rays in 1998 was the culmination of a two-decades-long political and community struggle that began with the creation of a countywide sports authority and led to the construction of a dome years before a franchise was ever awarded. What would be the cost of losing it all?