ST. PETERSBURG — The group studying new stadium options for the Tampa Bay Rays said Thursday that any new ballpark should have a retractable roof.
The roof could add $100 million or more to the cost of a stadium, but would allow the team to play in the open air in comfortable months like April and May and in shaded air conditioning in swampy summer months.
Retractable roofs have become popular in stadiums since the first one debuted at Toronto's Rogers Centre in 1989.
Five of Major League Baseball's 30 teams now play in ballparks with retractable roofs. The Florida Marlins will break ground this week on a $645 million stadium that includes a roof that can open and close.
"We need to have a fully air-conditioned interior," said Alan Bomstein of the community task force called A Baseball Community.
Rays executives, who previously pitched a hybrid of the roof concept for a waterfront St. Petersburg location, said Thursday they also now favor a roof that can fully close and a stadium with air conditioning.
But they added a warning: It will cost more than the $450 million waterfront proposal.
The stadium the advisory group "described building is a $550- to $600-million project," Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said.
The ultimate design of the roof would depend on the stadium location and the technology available when the ballpark is built, Kalt said. A retractable roof stadium also would take up more space, because the entire stadium would have to encircled by walls for the roof to sit on.
The recommendation from the advisory group is preliminary, but group chairman Jeff Lyash said an air-conditioned stadium is consistent with Florida's muggy summer climate.
Lyash's group hopes to make its recommendations, including on stadium design and location, to government leaders late this year or early 2010.
Domes are dying off
Starting next year, the Rays will be the only major league team to play in a stadium with a roof that cannot open and only one of two teams to not play on natural grass.
Rays executives say it's more difficult to replicate baseball traditions in a domed stadium. And the players say playing on natural grass is better for their bodies.
While the team says it would hope to build a unique stadium, executives point to Miller Park in Milwaukee as an example of the roof system they could consider.
There, seven panels form a roof that can open or close in about 10 minutes. The panels move on tracks and spread out like an accordion. When the roof is open, the panels hide at the edge of the ballpark one on top of another.
"The vast majority of fans really see it as a unique plus," said Tyler Barnes, the Brewers vice president of communications. "When you buy a ticket, no matter what, you know you're going to see a game in a comfortable environment."
Barnes said the number of closed-roof games varies depending on the year. The team also has hosted games between other teams that could not play at their parks because of severe weather.
In Miami, Marlins officials say they expect to play about half of their 81 regular-season home games with the roof open.
In Arizona, where the Diamondbacks play, the team has a hotline fans can call to hear if the roof will be open. For this past Sunday's game against the Florida Marlins, the forecast called for a first-pitch temp of 109 degrees.
The roof was closed.
Where should it go?
A Baseball Community also recommended Thursday that a stadium should be built for 37,000 people and no more than 40,000 people, and be incorporated into any light rail or mass transit project.
The ballpark "should be the first of the next generation of stadium design," said Bomstein, with wider concourses, ergonomically designed seats and consistently clear field views.
The group continues to consider five possible locations — downtown St. Petersburg, the Gateway area in north St. Petersburg, the West Shore area in Tampa, downtown Tampa and the area near the state fairgrounds in east Hillsborough County.
The group has avoided discussing specific sites, though it did hear a new round of facts suggesting a ballpark would be best near the region's center.
A group of University of South Florida business professors studying area demographics said that more people come from north St. Petersburg and Tampa to attend Rays games than from areas around downtown St. Petersburg.
There also is more individual wealth and a bigger corporate base outside of downtown St. Petersburg. "The other … areas that we looked at are better markets for baseball than the current location," said Sean Lux, a visiting assistant professor at USF's Center for Entrepreneurship.
The Rays have an agreement with St. Petersburg to play at the Trop through 2027. The city has said it will object to the team moving elsewhere.
"Right now we play in St. Petersburg, we're proud to be in St. Petersburg," team principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a conference call last week. "We undertook an enormous project to try to build another ballpark in St. Petersburg, so clearly we're sold on the area, we love the area, and we think there's tremendous potential. That didn't quite go as I would have hoped it did, but I always try to look at the positives, and the positive is that the ABC commission came out of that and we're looking forward to seeing what their findings are. It doesn't take a person to build a ballpark; it's going to take the whole region."