TAMPA — The potential ballpark site has been identified. Business leaders are on board. More financing options may be available to cover the estimated $700 million stadium sticker price than in previous failed attempts to find what Tampa Bay Rays officials have referred to as a generational home for the team.
But what if it all falls apart again — as it did in 2008 and 2018 — and the Rays leave?
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a key figure in the negotiations for a new ballpark on the western edge of Ybor City, said a Rays departure won’t be a death blow for her city or the region, but a Major League Baseball exit from Tampa Bay shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“We would continue to grow without a doubt. I mean it wouldn’t bring the region to its knees. But we are a large urban city growing each and every day. And so we should be adding assets to our community rather than them being taken away by other municipalities or countries,” Castor told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview Wednesday.
A Rays exit from Tampa Bay — the team has played in St. Petersburg since its first game in 1998 — wouldn’t affect the “total package” she said is offered by Florida’s third-largest city: culture, business opportunity and quality of life.
“It wouldn’t affect our momentum at all. We still have businesses coming here. I haven’t talked to any business or any organization that moved to Tampa because of Major League Baseball,” she said.
Still, Castor said, the loss of a professional sports team wouldn’t be a desirable outcome for Tampa Bay.
“It would be a blow for us, for a city, a region as large as ours that is on an incredible trajectory, to lose a major league sporting franchise,” Castor said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep that from happening.”
Castor said a recent letter to the Times, signed by more than three dozen area executives supporting the split-season concept and the Ybor City site, is “a step in the right direction.”
And the crafting of a financial package for public money for the stadium is progressing and should be ready by spring, the mayor said.
The Rays have publicly said they will pay half of the $700 million estimated cost for an open-air part-time ballpark. The mayor won’t commit to a public contribution.
“I’m not going to put a dollar amount on it. I’ve stated all along that the community’s appetite to pay for a stadium has left the train station,” she said.
Nor did she come out in support of the split season concept in which the team would head north to Montreal in early summer to play out the rest of the regular season. She repeated her belief that it’s up to the Rays to ensure that the idea is “a viable business model and they are 100 percent behind it.”
Castor did hint at new financing options that may lessen the burden on taxpayers (she’s long ruled out using any city general fund money), but kept mum on specifics.
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“There are so many different avenues that can be traveled that I don’t want to get ahead of the process,” she said.