Rays say current Ybor stadium project is dead, remain committed to Tampa Bay area – for now

The Rays have no plans to leave the area before the 2027 end of their deal at the Trop, but at some point a 2028 home has to be addressed.
Stuart Sternberg, left, and Brian Auld, right, speak at baseball's winter meetings Tuesday in Las Vegas. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Stuart Sternberg, left, and Brian Auld, right, speak at baseball's winter meetings Tuesday in Las Vegas. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Published Dec. 11, 2018|Updated Dec. 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said today the plan to build a stadium in Ybor City is no longer viable but the team remains committed, for now, to looking again for a new home in the Tampa Bay area.

Sternberg said the lack of details and progress for the planned $892 million stadium in Ybor City that was to open in 2023 made it clear it was not going to work and thus there was no point in asking for an extension on the Dec. 31 deadline with St. Petersburg to look. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred earlier today sent a letter to Tampa officials saying the framework of the deal was lacking too many details.

In short, the Rays joined Manfred in saying there had not been nearly enough progress on the Ybor project to make it happen, even with a short extension on the Dec. 31 expiring agreement with St. Petersburg to look on the other side of the bridge.

"While the momentum and progress are real, we are not close at all to a workable framework," Sternberg said, referencing the fundamental issues that Manfred cited as not being addressed including financing, costs, timetable and site control. "We've had a long time. Three years is a long time."

Sternberg noted the hours and "many millions" the team invested in the Ybor project and said the failure was not due to a lack of effort on any party.

"While I am wildly disappointed by the result, I'm not discouraged," he said, noting how the government and business community worked together.

So, now what?

"I'm firmly committed to helping the Rays remain and thrive in Tampa Bay for decades and generations to come," Sternberg said. "Major League Baseball is a large part of what defines Tampa Bay as a major-league region and I continue to be enthusiastic about finding a way forward."

But he also noted, citing the failed 2007-08 effort to build on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, in perhaps ominous baseball terms, "We're at two strikes right now."

Sternberg said they are are a "pretty resourceful" and "pretty determined" group and remain optimistic about finding a new home in the Tampa Bay area, with no plans to try to leave the area before the end of 2027 use agreement at the Trop.

But he also acknowledged that at this point any new stadium in the Tampa Bay area wouldn't be ready until 2024, and at some point they have  to start thinking about where they would play in 2028, when they potentially could relocate with permission from MLB. New stadium construction requires four-five years lead time. Montreal, Portland (which recently unveiled stadium plans), Las Vegas, Charlotte and Nashville are all considered potential sites for a team.

"So we've got a couple of years to figure it out," Sternberg said at baseball's winter meetings. "We've got to know where the 2028 season will definitively be played over the next few years. We had a long window to get to that point, meaning 15 years, and that's elapsed now we've only got a few years left."

Sternberg and team president Brian Auld said they had no specific next step or site in mind and would be open to input, noting they have had cooperation on both sides of the bay.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said previously that he hoped the Rays would be open to rebuilding on the Tropicana Field site. Sternberg said at some point they have to let St. Petersburg get on with its plans, with or without a new stadium, at the 80-acre Trop site.

"Everything is back on the table," Auld said. "As we've been at this for 10 years now we continue to take the same approach as we have over that time. … We are a resourceful group, we'll get as creative as we possibly can, we'll work with all the partners that we can to make this thing a reality. While today is certainly disappointing and represents a bit of a setback we have great partners on both side of the bay that have shown a willingness and eagerness to get this resolved. And both sides have a lot to gain from getting this resolved regardless where the ultimate location is."

Sternberg said they felt the Ybor project, which relied on funding from opportunity zone investments and other sources to cover about half the cost, "could have done wonders" for Ybor.

Paying for the stadium is a major issue. Under the framework of the proposed Ybor City deal, the Rays were projected to pay about $450 million. Sternberg, who previously had floated a $150 million contribution and then said the would pay more but not how much,  said Monday they didn't get enough specifics (such as season ticket commitments or naming rights) on the Ybor deal to know what was realistic for them to pay.

"I think if we had gotten further along with that we would have been able to answer that question better," Sternberg said, noting that they have a base level in mind that has gone up but also that costs to finance and build are always rising.

"You could make the case, and it's not to sound flippant about it, but  we really can't afford to pay much of anything. And I could make a case in certain markets you could fund an entire stadium. … There are just too many variables involved to just put a number on it right away."