Rays ballpark deal would end decades of St. Petersburg stadium drama

If the team has finally settled on a stadium site, it would end Tampa Bay’s longest-running sports soap opera.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, left, steps from the podium at a Hillsborough County Commission meeting as team president Matt Silverman prepares to speak during a discussion about a potential new baseball stadium.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, left, steps from the podium at a Hillsborough County Commission meeting as team president Matt Silverman prepares to speak during a discussion about a potential new baseball stadium.
Published Sept. 19|Updated Sept. 19

Maybe Tuesday’s announcement that the Rays have reached an agreement for a long-term home in St. Petersburg shouldn’t have come as such a shock. For a while now, the principals involved have said a deal is coming.

“Things are going forward,” owner Stuart Sternberg said earlier this month. “I think we’re moving along at a very nice pace. And I feel pretty good about where we stand.”

“I’m feeling really good about where we are,” Mayor Ken Welch said in June. “And I’m really confident we’re going to have an agreement that everybody can feel comfortable with.”

Still, a deal to build a new $1.3 billion stadium on the city’s 86-acre Tropicana Field site, keeping Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg, has been decades coming. And at plenty of points along the way, it seemed like the Rays’ days in Pinellas County were numbered.

“It has not been an easy road,” Sternberg said Tuesday. “While our commitment to remain in Tampa Bay has been steadfast, the journey here has been a bumpy one.”

To say the least.

The short version of how we got here: After Welch took office in 2022, he reopened the city’s request for proposals to redevelop the site. In January, he named his preferred pick, a joint proposal from the Rays and global development firm Hines. And after eight months of tightly controlled negotiations, a funding deal — which may include the Rays and private investors covering about half of the $1.2 billion stadium, and the public covering the rest — appears to be in place.

If only the whole saga were that simple.

A spring training destination since the early days of baseball, the city of St. Petersburg had long pined for a major league franchise when the city in 1986 broke ground on a new stadium for a team it didn’t yet have. Even then, the project was controversial, as it required the city to raze part of a historically Black neighborhood known as the Gas Plant District. Families were displaced. Churches and cemeteries were lost.

But in 1995, following near-relocations by the San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox, the city was finally awarded its own expansion team. The Devil Rays signed a 30-year lease with the city, meaning they were married to the Trop until 2027, and the team and city spent tens of millions on renovations.

But around that time, all across baseball, a new generation of photogenic, fan-friendly, open-air ballparks like Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Denver’s Coors Field became all the rage. Between 1998 and 2010, half of the teams in Major League Baseball got new stadiums.

In 2007, three years after buying the team, Sternberg told The New York Times the stadium “has a shelf life of five years.” That year, the team proposed a $450 million waterfront stadium on the site of the city-owned Al Lang Stadium. For various logistical, environmental and financial reasons, that didn’t pan out. But it didn’t stop the Rays from looking elsewhere — the Toytown landfill site, the Carillon office park area, Derby Lane off Gandy Boulevard, Albert Whitted Airport, and so on.

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All of those sites are in St. Petersburg. That’s not a coincidence. Mayor Bill Foster and the city were determined to hold the Rays to that 30-year lease, which prevented the team from even discussing, much less exploring, sites outside St. Petersburg. So while developers and leaders in Hillsborough County floated Tampa’s Channel District and Florida State Fairgrounds as options, the team couldn’t seriously consider them.

It was a stalemate. And Sternberg wasn’t happy about it.

“If I don’t get a sense that there’s real cooperation and movement here, I’d sell the team,” he said in 2010. “And there’d be no reason for anyone else to keep it here.”

Foster said in 2013 that the league would probably be happy to let the Rays move or die.

“Major League Baseball does not believe in Tampa Bay as a baseball region, I am convinced of that,” he said.

Foster’s successor, Rick Kriseman, thawed relations by allowing the team in 2016 to explore sites outside the city. One proposal: A new $892 million stadium in Ybor City. Another: a plan for the Rays to split each season between Tampa and Montreal. Neither gained much traction.

Finally, in 2020, after years of city studies, Kriseman launched a request for proposal calling for development teams to put forward plans for how to remake the Trop site. The city wanted more than just a stadium replacement. Kriseman called for proposals that included residential towers, office and retail space, hotels, a conference center, a research or higher education campus, park space along a refurbished Booker Creek, historic nods to the old Gas Plant District and more. If the Rays stayed in town, great. If not, the city was going to be ready to move on.

In December 2021, weeks before leaving office, Kriseman picked a plan from a Miami group that would have cost up to $3.8 billion. Welch and the city took his recommendation under advisement, but with the post-COVID economy coming into clearer focus, Welch eventually tossed the plans aside and reopened the request for proposal. This time around, the Rays themselves joined in, teaming with Hines on a potentially $4 billion project.

Despite their involvement in that plan, the Rays still had not committed to staying in town. Veterinary entrepreneur and real estate investor Darryl Shaw had been piecing together land for a series of developments in and around Ybor City — with room for a new Rays stadium, should the team still decide to come.

But in January, Welch chose to pursue the Rays/Hines plan. The city and county have been negotiating a deal ever since. Shaw turned his focus to a new soccer stadium and women’s professional soccer team. And on Tuesday, the Rays, city and county made it official with a news conference at Tropicana Field.

Opening Day 2028 is still years away. A lot can change between now and then. At no point since Sternberg bought the team in 2004 has there been even one four-year period uninterrupted by some sort of stadium drama.

“There will be many, many votes ahead, for years to come, and just like in the past, not all votes will be easy,” City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard said Tuesday at the Trop. “But that is how we move forward into progress — collectively using everyone’s voice, everyone’s opinions, and making sure that we are representing every resident who will benefit and invest in this development.”

But 37 years after St. Petersburg broke ground on the Trop, the promise of a new downtown stadium has never seemed more real.

“We’ve waited a long time,” Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American History Museum of St. Petersburg, said Tuesday. “Everyone talked about the 40 years that we have been waiting for promises that were made. Well, we are waiting no longer. I am so excited about today, because now the work starts.”