Pinellas County commissioners talk Rays stadium deal, ask questions

A workshop Thursday marked commissioners’ first formal discussion on the stadium deal since officials announced one was in play last month.
This rendering shows an overhead view of a proposed new Tampa Bay Rays stadium on the city of St. Petersburg's 86-acre Tropicana Field site.
This rendering shows an overhead view of a proposed new Tampa Bay Rays stadium on the city of St. Petersburg's 86-acre Tropicana Field site. [ Tampa Bay Rays / Hines ]
Published Oct. 13, 2023

CLEARWATER — For the first time since the announcement last month that a deal for a new ballpark in St. Petersburg is on the table, Pinellas County commissioners were all in the same room to talk about what’s ahead.

The big topic at their work session Thursday was the term sheet, a nonbinding document that lays out the broad strokes of how the city, county and team will go at the project.

It isn’t much more than a road map. But it did give commissioners the chance to ask questions of County Administrator Barry Burton and David Abrams of the sports-focused investment bank Inner Circle Sports, which has consulted with the county during negotiations. Here’s some of what they wanted to know.

What’s the timeline?

Moving forward “can’t occur quick enough,” Burton said.

The County Commission will likely vote on final approvals in March, he said, but some pieces will come before commissioners sooner than that.

The county will finalize a financing plan later next year, Burton said. The longer lead time is important for the county, as Burton and commissioners hope to have more clarity on how much money they’ll need to spend on another issue: restoring eroded beaches.

By then, the county is likely either to have ironed out its dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has held up the renourishment process, or to have decided to tackle renourishment by itself, which will be more expensive.

Both the money for beach projects and the funding for a stadium would come from the county’s tourist tax fund, derived from a 6% tax on hotel and short-term rental stays.

The Rays and local officials have said they plan to have a new stadium ready for the 2028 season, should the deal go through. Construction on the new stadium would begin once financing is done and all the money is available. Abrams said the county is waiting on the Rays to provide an exact time frame, but he estimated that, with crews able to work year-round in the warm climate, construction would take about two and a half years.

What’s the return on investment?

There’s no straightforward answer — “It’s a good Ph.D. project,” said Abrams, who teaches sports management classes at New York University.

“When you’re looking at a 30-year projection, you’re going to be wrong,” he said. “You just don’t know.”

He described the economic benefit of stadium projects as “widely disputed.” Researchers have found for decades that governments don’t get back the money they invest in such projects.

Commissioners nevertheless remained optimistic about the potential for the planned redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District around the stadium to generate tax revenues. Under the proposed deal, the county would not directly finance that development.

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“The impetus behind the development of this stadium is the other development,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “By them being successful, the likelihood of a property tax coming is high.”

The district is within the Intown Community Redevelopment Area, meaning tax dollars generated there are reinvested there. That’s part of the city’s plan for financing the stadium. But the county’s agreement on the redevelopment area expires in 2032, Burton said, and if it’s not renewed, the county will be able to collect property taxes from the Gas Plant redevelopment. The Rays will not have to pay property taxes on the stadium.

Tourist tax dollars the county would spend on the stadium have limits on how they can be used, Commissioner Brian Scott noted. But when it collects taxes from the development around it, those dollars would go into the county’s general fund. “It’s all upside,” he said.

Will fans show up?

It’s the elephant in the room after the historically bad turnout for the team’s two playoff games last week.

“If you draw a circle around the Trop within 20 or 30 miles, a lot of that area is the water, and fish don’t go to baseball games,” Commissioner Chris Latvala said. “Do you think they can sustain 20 to 25,000 people in a new stadium for 80 games a year?”

The Rays’ annual attendance, Abrams said, has been about a third of the mark set by the most successful teams, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, which have drawn more than 3 million fans per season in recent years.

“Only time will tell,” Abrams said. “I think (the Rays) believe that uptick will be significant. But not 3 million.”