ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch made the biggest decision of his political career on Monday, selecting the team led by the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop Tropicana Field.
With the selection, Welch sought to remake history, trying to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg after the team’s threats to leave, to repay the mostly Black community that was plowed over for a stadium, and to court baseball by building a new district that creates jobs and offers affordable homes.
“The process was detailed and transparent, and as your mayor, I have done my homework.” Welch said. “I am fully confident that this decision is the best path forward for our city.
“We’re engaged and hope to be married very soon,” the mayor said in a news conference after the announcement.
Welch made the announcement at the end of his highly anticipated State of the City address Monday morning. Then the 40-piece marching band from his alma mater, Lakewood High School, played the 1978 hit “Got to be Real” by Cheryl Lynn.
The Rays made their pitch as part of a joint proposal to build a new, modern, 30,000-seat ballpark closer to the northeast part of the Tropicana Field site and to develop the area’s 86 acres with international real estate investment and development group Hines. In addition to a stadium, they propose building a senior living facility, 40,000 square feet of conference space as part of the ballpark space and a new Woodson African American Museum of Florida at the development’s entryway on Booker Creek. The team also would make a $10 million donation to the museum and build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
The stadium would be financed separately. The Hines/Rays proposal offered the most money to the city for development rights with an aggressive timeline that would guarantee a new ballpark by the 2028 home opener. It places the current value of the land at $97 million, more than the other bidders.
Welch said his decision was about certainty. He pointed to Hines’ track record and financial capacity — and his own personal track record of working with the Rays as a county commissioner and mayor.
“This is really the safe bet,” he said. “And so it wasn’t really difficult.”
While Welch’s decision paints a brighter future for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg, terms that would keep the Rays playing home games there must be worked out in a separate agreement.
That use agreement is scheduled to come together with a term sheet around this summer. In the meantime, the Rays could continue looking at other locations.
“I don’t see that happening,” Welch said during his news conference. “They’ve done their research. They put together a heck of a team, heck of a plan.”
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Rays president Brian Auld, Hines senior managing director Michael Harrison and spokesperson Rafaela Amador were in attendance as Welch made his announcement.
“It feels great. It feels great,” Auld said. “We were really proud of what we put together and because we have such tremendous respect for the mayor and his staff, that validated all the hard work. And trust us, to lead this forward means the world to us.”
At a Monday news conference held by the Rays at Tropicana Field, Auld said the team is “fully engaged” with St. Petersburg, but said the Rays were “continuing the dialogue” with Tampa and Hillsborough County.
“We’ll need to see some votes happen. We’ll need to see some funding allocated and we’ll need to see some more handshakes and celebration,” Auld later told a reporter. “For me, it’ll be when there’s a shovel in the ground. And here’s hoping that happens as soon as it possibly can.”
Hillsborough County Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan said Welch’s decision is “the only clear chance St. Pete has to keep the team.”
“I guess we’re on the clock,” he said. “We will be prepared to negotiate (with the Rays) when the time is right.”
Michael Harrison, a senior managing director with Hines, said without the Rays, the redevelopment would be a “very different project.”
“When you don’t have the kind of anchor tenant that the Rays represent to that project and all that spirals off of that in terms of adjacent activities,” he said. “The site plan and the master plan would need to be revisited.”
The Rays have been calling for construction of a new stadium for the past 15 years, first proposing an outdoor venue with a sail-like roof on the St. Petersburg waterfront. They have since appeared to focus on Tampa, saying a location more at the center of the region’s population would attract bigger crowds for a team that routinely ranks near the bottom in attendance.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor repeated a line she uses often, that her main goal has been to ensure that the team stays in the region, while nodding to the on-again, off-again nature of past negotiations.
“There is a lot of work still to do,” she said. “Tampa remains a great option for the team and we’re keeping our door open and pencil sharpened for the due diligence on any potential Rays stadium proposal in Tampa.”
Welch passed on three other developer groups, including what he acknowledged was the Rays’ main competitor: Sugar Hill Community Partners. The group, led by San Francisco-based JMA Ventures, had spent the last two years rallying community support, including among Black pastors. The Sugar Hill team promised that half of its residential units would be for affordable and workforce housing.
Sugar Hill was a runner-up in the previous redevelopment bidding contest under former Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“We want to thank our team members and friends who have worked tirelessly on this pursuit for more than two years, as well as the residents of St. Pete who have been so consistently generous with their time and feedback,” Sugar Hill said in a statement. “We have great affection for the St. Pete community and hope that the true promise of the Historic Gas Plant District site is finally realized.”
Two other bidders, 50 Plus 1 Sports of Miami, committed to using minority-owned businesses, and Tampa-based Restoration Associates, backed by local physician and philanthropist Kiran Patel, also submitted bids. City staff and an independent consultant said their plans lacked details and proven financial ability to do the work.
Monday’s event was open to the public. A city spokesperson said proposers would not find out who was selected ahead of time. Sugar Hill representatives, including development manager David Carlock, were also in the crowd when Welch shared his decision.
Welch’s first year in office centered around him tossing out the bids and selection made by his predecessor and then seeking new proposals. He said he thought the prior offers didn’t do enough to address the city’s affordable housing crisis and racial economic disparities.
He said he was seeking to also honor the historically Black Gas Plant community razed to make way for a stadium decades ago.
Welch campaigned on a platform of racial equity and doing good on broken promises made to Black residents. With bleachers set up and performances teeing up his speech outside City Hall, the fanfare compensated for a public inauguration he missed out on because he caught COVID-19 last January.
A few hours after Welch’s speech, Faith in Florida, a social and environmental justice organization, held a news conference to apply pressure on the city to maintain ownership of the land. About 15 demonstrators held signs reading “Don’t sell the Trop” and “St. Pete is not for sale.”
Speakers at the demonstration argued that keeping the land public is the only way to guarantee it’ll be used for the public good, including truly affordable housing. City Council member Richie Floyd compared it to the city’s recreation centers, libraries and parks — “the things that make our city worth living in” — and urged residents to rally in favor of public ownership.
Welch’s announcement is just the beginning of a yearslong process that will include detailed negotiations, City Council votes and public input. City officials have said they hope to negotiate with the Rays for an agreement that would keep them at Tropicana Field for years to come before they commit to a broader development agreement.