Hooper: Time to push the envelope in effort to build Rays stadium in Ybor

The more than decade-long stadium drama that surrounds the Tampa Bay Rays entered a new phase when Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg unveiled the design of the ballpark the team wants built in Ybor City. [Courtesy of Populous Architects]
The more than decade-long stadium drama that surrounds the Tampa Bay Rays entered a new phase when Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg unveiled the design of the ballpark the team wants built in Ybor City. [Courtesy of Populous Architects]
Published July 20
Updated August 11

The Rays started employing a strategy of using relievers to start games when they sent Sergio Romo to the mound to face the Los Angeles Angels earlier this season.

Through criticism and occasional outright ridicule, they stuck with the plan. And they enter today’s game after the All-Star break sporting the best team ERA in Major League Baseball since that day.

It’s just another example of how the Rays have built on-field success by taking unique approaches.

Now, as the team seeks to find financing and community support for a proposed Ybor City stadium, its approach should be the same.

Legitimate issues have been raised about the proposal.

• Will the corporate community purchase enough suites and season ticket packages to provide big dollars?

• How will a ball park impact life in the area’s most important historic district?

• Should we allow an $892 million effort to take precedence over more pressing needs?

• Do the Rays and its ownership group really intend to make Tampa Bay its long-term home?

The answers to these questions can be complicated, but with ingenuity, solutions can be found. None of the issues, or other concerns people have raised, have to doom the project. Last week’s presentation of the stadium design should be a start, not an end.

As for corporate support, we’re clearly not a market that can call upon a handful of home-run hitting Fortune 100 companies to tote the load for everyone. Yet just like the team strives to win games with pitching and defense while manufacturing runs, perhaps civic leaders can find 20 to 30 mid-size businesses to string together, producing "singles" and "doubles."

Can it come up with enough? Let’s find out.

The impact on Ybor? How about a community compact, signed by all involved, that would contain protections for independent businesses, assurances that property values wouldn’t skyrocket and a plan for residents who might end up displaced?

As for bigger community needs, I definitely think education and transportation rate higher, but instead of pitting the priorities against each other, could the Rays’ new stadium be a catalyst for support?

Stick with me on this one.

Everyone talks about how the Bucs reaped the benefits of a sweetheart deal from the tax initiative that funded the construction of Raymond James Stadium. What you hear less about is how the Community Investment Tax has helped fund an array of projects over the years while providing important support for police and fire.

And it would have never passed without inclusion of the stadium proposal.

Such a tax initiative can’t gain public approval in today’s political climate, but that doesn’t mean a unique approach couldn’t pay dividends for the community. Consider this: Florida State University and the University of Florida gained state dollars for their football stadiums by building classrooms and offices into the structures.

Could we do the same here? What if the Rays built school district offices into its stadium, possibly allowing the district to sell its valuable downtown real estate and use the money to address its current budget deficits?

Crazy? Stupid? Impossible? Maybe. Even probably. But they said the same thing when Romo took the mound. They said the same thing when former manager Joe Maddon printed up T-shirts that said "9 equals 8" en route to the World Series.

There always will be naysayers who dismiss every idea and every project with cynicism. But the possibilities deserve to be explored along with every other out-of-the-box suggestion.

The Rays bring an intrinsic value to Tampa Bay, but the right deal could bring back tangible returns while helping the team find a new home. For now, I trust the team is sincere and not leveraging us for a move.

If it is, too bad for them. This community can survive without baseball, and after it’s all said and done, we may end up rooting for the Portland Rays. But with the opportunity before us, let’s play to win without losing sight of our community needs.

That’s all I’m saying.

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