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‘About damn time’: For Tampa Bay officials, Rays stadium deal is big

Officials from both sides of the bay react as though maybe this time is for real.
Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group.
Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group. [ Courtesy of Gensler architectural firm ]
Published Sept. 18|Updated Yesterday

The news that the Tampa Bay Rays may finally turn to a new chapter — reportedly landing on a deal for a new stadium in St. Petersburg — emerged from silence.

Over the team’s 16 years of seeking a new stadium, one proposal after another had been preceded by whispers of what they contained, only for negotiations to fall apart.

This time, though, they came together with barely a hint of acrimony, nor any attempt to float specific terms in public. With word coming down Monday that an announcement is in the offing, with details to be made public Tuesday, leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay reacted as though an agreement is within reach.

In Pinellas County, the mood among elected officials was optimistic, with caveats — several said they still didn’t know the details of the deal on the table and emphasized that there’s plenty of work left to do before a plan is set in stone.

Reactions were more mixed on the other side of Tampa Bay, with some disappointed that efforts to bring the Rays to Tampa had apparently failed and others saying they were pleased that the team would be staying in the region.

But none denied that this was a big deal. After a decade and a half of stadium proposals and negotiations, this is the closest anyone has gotten to securing the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. Pinellas County Commission Chairperson Janet Long put it bluntly: “It’s about damn time, don’t you think?”

That sort of sentiment, County Commissioner Brian Scott said, could apply to the summer, or the last year, or the last 15. If there was ever a time to get a deal done, he and several others said, it was now, with the Rays’ lease on Tropicana Field set to expire after 2027.

“Projects or deals, however you want to look at it, tend to take the time that you give them, and the time’s about up,” Scott said. “I think the parties have been kind of dancing around the issue for the better part of a decade, if not more, but nothing gets people together like a deadline.”

And though those involved in negotiations hadn’t publicized a specific deadline for getting a deal on the table, they ultimately made good on St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch’s statements that they were on track to get one done this summer, with Monday’s news coming five days before the autumnal equinox.

At times, officials noted, it seemed one might get done sooner. Scott recalled telling a reporter in the spring that he expected news within a few weeks. County Commissioner Kathleen Peters said there were times she thought a deal was done, only to have negotiations carry on.

“We really weren’t confident, because every time we thought we had it locked down, it would be in the press that they (the Rays) were talking to Tampa, and then we would get frustrated,” she said.

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That the Hillsborough County Commission, led by Chairperson Ken Hagan, was still attempting to woo the Rays was a rare bit of stadium-negotiation news to emerge this summer.

But if there were other sticking points that caused talks to take as long as they did, they haven’t become public. The process has been markedly different from previous stadium proposal efforts, which have been plagued by leaks and public negotiation.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton kept commissioners informed, they said, but has otherwise been tight-lipped. He declined to comment on the stadium news Monday morning, saying the Tampa Bay Times’ report spoke for itself.

“Commissioners, the county staff, the city staff, the mayor, the council members, the Rays — it speaks to our commitment to want to get a deal done and that we trust each other enough to keep it under wraps until we are ready,” said Pinellas County Commissioner René Flowers. “That doesn’t always happen in government.”

St. Petersburg City Council member Lisset Hanewicz said Monday that she hadn’t yet received details about the deal. City Council Member Richie Floyd said he expects to be briefed on the proposal before the public announcement on Tuesday, but that negotiations until now have been kept quiet, even from elected officials. He said he didn’t want to comment on what he hopes to see from a deal until he gets more detail. None of the council’s six other members responded to requests for comment.

“I had very little information outside of what the public had for a long time,” Floyd said. “It seems to have been negotiated with the administration and the Rays and the county pretty tightly — that’s my perception.”

The coming days will tell how the Rays, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County plan to pay for the new stadium. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said the team plans to cover half or more of the projected $1.2 billion cost, while the city and county will take on the rest. Pinellas plans to cover its portion entirely with tourist-tax dollars.

But word of a deal suggests that the numbers were at least more appealing than what the Rays heard from the other side of Tampa Bay.

“We’ve said from day one that the ultimate goal was keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay, and our community can celebrate that outcome,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “A Tampa stadium would be ideal, but the team understood they had to contribute more resources up front to make that happen than building in St. Pete.”

Alan Clendenin, a Tampa City Council member who sits on the board of the Tampa Sports Authority, said he was disappointed that pitches for the team to play in Ybor City hadn’t worked out.

“We had a very good package that was not only a win for the Rays but for the city of Tampa and the taxpayers of Tampa,” he said, referring to Hagan’s pitch.

Hillsborough County and the Tampa Sports Authority made a viable, verbal offer to the Rays, Hagan said, and then the team stopped communicating.

”I’ve stated for 13 years that protecting the taxpayers was paramount and that principle guided our financial model,” he said. “We made a viable, verbal offer to the team and essentially they stopped communicating with us. That is somewhat reminiscent of the last time we made an offer to the team in 2019.”

Hagan said the Hillsborough offer relied on a pay-as-you-go model of surcharges and user fees in a new entertainment district that was “intended to protect the taxpayers and places all the risk and responsibility on the team.”

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was unable to secure a deal to move the Rays to Ybor City during his tenure, said he still believes the Tampa site was better but wasn’t surprised the Rays were sticking in St. Petersburg. Welch’s administration had managed to do what he couldn’t — get the team to cover half the cost — and the opportunity presented by plans to develop the area around the stadium was alluring, he said.

“At the end of the day, we kept the team” in Tampa Bay, he said. “It’s been a long, challenging courtship. And somebody’s getting married.”

Times staff writers Tracey McManus, C.T. Bowen and Sue Carlton contributed to this report.