St. Petersburg Chamber endorses Rays’ Tropicana Field proposal

The endorsement comes weeks before Mayor Ken Welch is expected to make his own pick.
This rendering from the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines, a global development firm, shows a possible vision of St. Petersburg's 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
This rendering from the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines, a global development firm, shows a possible vision of St. Petersburg's 86-acre Tropicana Field site. [ Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published Jan. 12|Updated Jan. 12

A longtime business ally of the Tampa Bay Rays has thrown its weight behind the team’s proposal to redevelop St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field site.

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday endorsed a plan for the 86-acre site pitched by Rays and global real estate firm Hines, calling it “a vision of our future that provides a thoughtful distribution of opportunity” in a column signed by chairperson Sandra Braham and president and CEO Chris Steinocher, published Thursday by the Tampa Bay Times.

“The entire proposal is designed to create a community that is livable, walkable and breathes — not one aimed at creating maximum density and profit,” Braham and Steinocher wrote.

Related: Column: St. Pete Chamber supports Rays plan for redeveloping Trop site

In an interview, Steinocher said the team’s long history in St. Petersburg gives it a deep knowledge of the area other teams don’t have.

“They really tried to address every one of the housing issues, every one of the neighborhood issues,” Steinocher said. “Every promise we’re all trying to do, we feel like they addressed each one of them in a sincere way, had answers to all of them. We believe they’re the ones that can actually do what we believe is the first hurdle, which is get us to an opening day on 2028. We don’t believe anybody else can deliver that in a coordinated fashion.”

Related: Here are the 4 proposals to redevelop St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field

The Rays’ plan would include a smaller stadium of about 30,000 or so seats, as well as a new Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum, concert hall and park. The team estimates the total cost to be more than $4 billion, including more than $150 million in public tax-increment funding for roadways, utilities and other public space.

Having well-financed partners in Hines and master architect planner Gensler was a big reason why the chamber had confidence in the Rays’ plan, Steinocher said.

“When you bring Hines into any kind of investment meeting, they know who they’re talking to, and what the backstop is,” he said. “Hines and Gensler have the credibility where you can bring resources to the table at all time.”

Related: Rays’ proposal would add sunshine, palm trees and a nearby creek to ballpark

While Braham and Steinocher’s column said the chamber’s board voted “unanimously” to support the Rays plan, Steinocher acknowledged a handful of members abstained because they had ties to one or more Trop proposal — including the Rays’.

David Carlock, the development manager for Sugar Hill Community Partners, another team in the running for the Trop project, said that despite “encouraging” discussions with Steinocher last year, his team was never invited to deliver a full presentation to the chamber’s board.

“We’re certainly disappointed and I would say a little puzzled, frankly,” Carlock said.

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“From Day 1, the only thing we’ve ever asked on this or any other pursuit we’re involved with, we’ve said, so long as we get an equal chance to make our case, then whether we prevail or don’t prevail, we can live with that. But we were not given that here. I can say with a high level of confidence that there were, I’m sure, a large number of people who voted who are not fully informed, and are not fully aware of the differences between our proposal and other teams, and the merits of our vision.”

The St. Petersburg Chamber has been in the Rays’ corner on stadium arguments for years, even endorsing a split-city proposal that would have seen the Rays play half their home games in Montreal. By 2021, other local chambers of commerce, including the Tampa Bay Chamber, had come around to supporting such a plan.

When the Rays didn’t respond to a request for proposal on the Trop site in late 2020, the chamber joined with other city leaders in urging the team and then-mayor Rick Kriseman to keep negotiating. Kriseman ultimately endorsed a different proposal. But his successor, Ken Welch, threw it out and started over, directly inviting the Rays to submit a bid.

That the Rays heeded the city’s call, turning in what Steinocher called an “A-plus presentation” to boot, was a big factor in the chamber’s decision.

“They did not just mail this in and say, ‘Let’s see what the city wants to do for us,’” Steinocher said.

Rays president Matt Silverman said the team would keep seeking support from business partners around Tampa Bay.

“We are grateful for the chamber’s unanimous endorsement, and we very much appreciate their recognition that our proposal is financially viable, honors the history of the site and makes meaningful contributions toward our common challenges such as housing affordability, resiliency and social equity,” Silverman said in a statement.

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.