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St. Petersburg council grills city, team and consultant on Rays deal

Council members asked pointed questions about the significant public subsidy and city priorities.
 
The St. Petersburg City Council, city officials and representatives with the Tampa Bay Rays meet for the first time in public to discuss the terms of the Rays stadium deal and larger Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment on Thursday.
The St. Petersburg City Council, city officials and representatives with the Tampa Bay Rays meet for the first time in public to discuss the terms of the Rays stadium deal and larger Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 26, 2023|Updated Oct. 27, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Everyone involved in the process — City Council members, representatives with the Tampa Bay Rays and Mayor Ken Welch — acknowledged what it meant to meet Thursday and what it took to get there.

They talked about the nerves they had, discussing a deal that was the closest the city has been to building a stadium and keeping the Major League Baseball team in town for the long run. The meeting at City Hall was the first time all parties could discuss the deal in public and give feedback on the total $6.5 billion redevelopment.

“This is an exciting day. I might look calm, but I am very excited,” Welch said. “I was thinking what some of our previous mayors would’ve said about this day.”

From left: Hines senior managing director Michael Harrison, Tampa Bay Rays co-President Brian Auld, and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch attend the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday.
From left: Hines senior managing director Michael Harrison, Tampa Bay Rays co-President Brian Auld, and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch attend the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The excitement soon gave way to hard questions. Not all council members were ready to cheer just yet, as the skeptics among them parsed the public numbers behind the deal: $1.3 billion for the stadium itself, with $600 million in public money, roughly evenly split between the city and Pinellas County, and the rest coming from the Rays. The city would spend up to $130 million more for infrastructure for the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District surrounding the stadium.

But Welch called it a providential day in St. Petersburg, as reaching a conclusion with the Rays was a goal of his administration for the past 22 months and the focus of prior mayors and councils for over a decade. Welch said descendants who were promised economic opportunities and prosperity from the redevelopment have waited for 40 years.

He called the deal on the table “fiscally responsible and sustainable.”

“We can afford it” without raising taxes or taking resources away, Welch said.

Rays co-president Brian Auld called the timeline to have a stadium ready by Opening Day 2028 “the single most important thing.” The Rays will start looking for consultants and creating designs for the ballpark on their own dime before official agreements are signed. The City Council will have to sign off on a slew of agreements by spring 2024 to begin construction that November.

Tampa Bay Rays co-President Brian Auld attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday.
Tampa Bay Rays co-President Brian Auld attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Michael Harrison of the Rays’ development partner Hines said he threw the city’s previous request for proposals process “in the trash” because it didn’t involve the Rays.

“This was a project that had to have the Rays as a core anchor tenant,” he said. “The Rays had to be part of solution.”

After the celebratory talk, council member Richie Floyd asked a pointed question. He said that in 2022, economists J.C. Bradbury, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys analyzed 130 prior studies of publicly subsidized stadiums and found little to no tangible boost to local economies and that subsidies far exceeded any public benefits. Why is this deal any different?

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“I just don’t agree with the fact that we need this team to be the anchor,” Floyd said. “I would love to have this team to be the anchor, but not at the expense of the city.”

David Abrams, a consultant with Inner Circle Sports commissioned by the city and Pinellas County, said most of that data is outdated.

When a reporter pointed out during a break that more than half of those studies were published since 2010, with 39 of those incorporating data collected from 2010 or later, Abrams asked how many were mixed-use developments like what is currently being proposed on the Tropicana Field site.

David Abrams, a consultant with Inner Circle Sports, attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday.
David Abrams, a consultant with Inner Circle Sports, attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

During the council discussion, Abrams had pointed to the Battery entertainment district, home of the Atlanta Braves, as an example that is “astounding.” When Floyd brought up another study done by one of the economists showing that Cobb County, where the Battery is located, is running a $15 million annual deficit, Abrams said he read the study a while ago and did not have the data. He referred a reporter to a 2022 study commissioned by the Braves that concluded that it was an “attractive investment” for Cobb County.

Council member Lisset Hanewicz took issue with the first goal listed by the city: keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

“Isn’t our goal to maximize the use of the property for the greater benefit of the citizens?” she asked.

Welch responded, saying it was by virtue of the sacrifice by residents of the Gas Plant neighborhood, paved over before Tropicana Field was built, that those 60 acres are available today to provide benefits to the community. Hanewicz said she was asking about the 17 to 20 acres of ballpark land, “that we’re giving free to the Rays.”

St. Petersburg Council member Lisset Hanewicz attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday.
St. Petersburg Council member Lisset Hanewicz attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

She asked several questions calling for an accounting of Pinellas County’s contribution as well as the Rays’ expenses. She asked about the value of the Rays’ ticket sales, parking revenue and suites.

“If we are giving a public subsidy of over $400 million and we are telling the public that this is OK, we need to understand the deal inside and out,” Hanewicz said.

The Rays’ other co-president, Matt Silverman, said the team has hired a consultant for a feasibility study so they can gain a better understanding of the potential risks and rewards of the project.

Tampa Bay Rays co-President Matt Silverman attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday.
Tampa Bay Rays co-President Matt Silverman attends the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Council member John Muhammad pointed out that the public funding could be spent on other needs, such as affordable housing programs. Welch said the city has been recognized for using most of its $45 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds on affordable housing.

Later, council member Gina Driscoll asked how the city can address major needs, such as renovations to the municipal marina, while financing the Rays deal. Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene said that’ll be a challenge.

“Over time, we will have to make those annual tough decisions on how are we going to finance capital projects,” he said.

By 3:30 p.m., the City Council had only covered the stadium part of the deal and recessed before getting to redeveloping the Historic Gas Plant District portion around the stadium.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.