TAMPA — After years of speculation and courtship, the Tampa Bay Rays are finally expected to announce Friday that they want to relocate the team to Tampa, according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
Rays Principal owner Stuart Sternberg will for the first time state publicly that the team's preferred location for a new ballpark is in Ybor City near the Channel District, the commissioner said.
"This is a major step," said Hagan, who added he was given this news from the team. "I'm hopeful this will continue to build momentum on our effort to bring the Tampa Bay Rays to Ybor.
"Tomorrow's announcement will go a long way toward that, and I imagine at some point in the near future they'll announce their ballpark design."
A news conference is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at the Tampa Baseball Museum.
If all goes as planned, the first Rays game in Tampa could take place in 2022 or 2023.
But financing for a new stadium is not yet in place and could take months to hammer out. The Rays have an agreement with the City of St. Petersburg that allows them to search for a new ballpark through January 2019.
A Rays spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, though, seemed to confirm the latest development Thursday evening. Kriseman said he was told by Rays president Brian Auld that the team was going to "focus their attention" on the Ybor site because the team thinks it "might work the best." He added that he did not believe the decision was final.
Kriseman hoped the Rays would stay in St. Petersburg in a new ballpark at a redeveloped Tropicana Field. But that was always a tough sell for the Rays and Major League Baseball, who soured on the location after years of low ticket sales there.
Hagan was confident Tampa would provide more fan support, as well as more involvement from the business community. On Friday, Tampa business leaders Ron Christaldi and Charles Sykes will also unveil a corporate campaign that will guarantee sponsorships and ticket sales — a major factor that could determine how much the team will contribute toward a stadium.
"They have anemic support in St. Pete and it's important that we show Major League Baseball that support exists here," Hagan said. "From the Rays' perspective, it gives them a reliable revenue stream that assists with their financial modeling."
An announcement Friday would come just days after the Rays released plans to celebrate the team's 20th anniversary as a franchise this season, all of it spent in St. Petersburg. Throughout the year, the team has planned promotions, giveaways and celebrations of past seasons and players at the Trop.
If negotiations with Hillsborough leaders progress, this could be one of the team's last seasons there.
"We played close to 4,000 baseball games," Sternberg said at a news conference Wednesday, "and we expect to play thousands more, tens of thousands ideally."
The Rays' lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027. Under the deal with St. Petersburg, the Rays have to pay back the city $3 million a year for the remainder of the lease if the team relocates before the end of 2022. After that, the fee drops to $2 million a year.
The front office began looking for a new home in January 2016. Hillsborough and Tampa officials showed the team eight locations — from the Florida State Fairgrounds to the Tampa Greyhound Track — to build a ballpark.
None of those offerings were Sternberg's top choice, he acknowledged last year. Other more desirable locations became unavailable while the team was locked into its lease with St. Petersburg, including the Heights, a 43-acre mixed-use project taking shape in downtown Tampa along a bend in the Hillsborough River.
Local officials have focused on the area between downtown Tampa and Ybor City because it checks several boxes for the Rays: local authenticity (it's near the home of Al Lopez, Tampa's first professional baseball Hall of Famer, and the historic Ybor neighborhood); connection to transportation (the TECO street car, the Selmon Expressway and Interstate 275 ); and it is ripe for development (near the planned Water Street Tampa project and new construction in Ybor).
Initially, land in the area was in the hands of too many different owners. However, a contiguous parcel was assembled by Darryl Shaw, the CEO of BluePearl Veterinary Partners and recently a major developer in Ybor City.
In October, Hagan announced a nonprofit run by Christaldi and Sykes had obtained control of a 14-acre site from Shaw just north of the Ybor Channel for a potential ballpark. The area, mostly warehouses now, is bordered by 15th Street and Channelside Drive to the east and west and Fourth Avenue and Adamo Drive to the north and south.
At the time, the Rays were non-committal. However, Hagan said Sternberg and Rays brass have been in lockstep with the county and are now ready to come forward. He does not believe the team is considering any other locations in the Tampa Bay region.
There are still many hurdles to a deal. Hagan said the county and team have so far barely engaged on financing. The team first needs to decide on a price tag, and to do that, it needs a ballpark blueprint. Hagan indicated that the cost of a roof remains a hold up in design.
Sternberg floated $150 million as the starting point for the team's contribution, a figure that county officials have scoffed at as too low. The amount could go up if corporate commitment is considerable, Sternberg has said, but likely nowhere near enough to finance a ballpark likely to cost upward of $700 million.
"Judging by how long it took us to gain site control and to get us to where we are now, I don't believe it'll be just a couple months," Hagan said. "I'm hopeful it will be this year. But this is an extremely complicated and challenging endeavor and the financial aspect is going to be the most complicated."
Any agreement must also win approval from the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission.
Kriseman said questions about financing a Tampa site still lead him to believe St. Petersburg is the best home for the Rays. A memorandum of understanding between the city and the team offers the Rays 50 percent of redevelopment rights for the 85-acre Tropicana Field site.
Nevertheless, he told the St. Petersburg City Council Thursday night that his administration would begin to examine how to redevelop the Trop site without a ballpark.
"So we're prepared if in fact they do come to the conclusion ...that the Ybor site is the best, we're ready," Kriseman said.
Revelations that the Rays are leaning toward leaving didn't surprise City Council member Charlie Gerdes.
"Geography has always been (Hillsborough County's) high point," Gerdes said. "This was the obvious course of things."
Times staff writers Zack Sampson and Marc Topkin contributed. Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scontorno.