Tampa Bay leaders react to news that MLB has dashed Rays’ sister-city dream

From Tampa to St. Petersburg, elected officials and business leaders greeted the news of Major League Baseball’s decision to kill the plan with shock, optimism.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch both voiced cautious optimism Thursday after Major-League Baseball announced it had denied the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal for a split season with Montreal.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch both voiced cautious optimism Thursday after Major-League Baseball announced it had denied the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal for a split season with Montreal. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 20, 2022|Updated Jan. 20, 2022

Tampa Bay leaders reacted to word that Major League Baseball has killed the Tampa Bay Rays’ plans for a split season with Montreal with both surprise and guarded optimism after the news broke over the lunch hour Thursday.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who is in Washington, D.C., released a statement saying the news means the city can throw financial proposals based on a split season into the trash.

“All along our goal has been to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay. We had been working on both sister city and full season proposals, and now we can focus all of our energy on a full season. I am optimistic the Rays will call Tampa Bay home for many years to come,” Castor said in the statement.

Castor, Hillsborough County officials and the Tampa Sports Authority have been working on a financial package for a stadium proposed on the western edge of Ybor City.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan said Thursday he wasn’t surprised that Major League Baseball put the kibosh on the split-season concept, only that the announcement came during a lockout of players.

“I’ve said for months it was only a matter of time before the sister-city concept died on the vine,” Hagan said.

It’s why the city, county and Sports Authority have been preparing a proposal for the team to remain in Tampa year round rather than just for its spring training and early season games, he said.

The idea now is to refine that plan, focusing on the former Kforce corporate headquarters site — because the Rays selected it — and potentially other Ybor City locations to present to the team. The full-season plan would include a roofed stadium and likely a more generous financial incentive for the team, he said.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch released a statement expressing optimism that the team will stay in the Sunshine City.

“We are working with our county partners and City Council to put together the best plan possible,” said Welch, adding that the plan will dovetail with existing Tropicana Field master development proposals. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Business leaders expressed shock at the decision. But they also said blowing up the split-season approach could lead to innovative ideas to keep the team in the region.

“It felt like a sniper bullet from 1,000 yards away, to be honest with you,” said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, shortly after meeting with team officials.

The St. Pete Chamber was one of the first local business organizations to support the Rays’ split-city proposal. In recent months, others, including the Tampa Bay Chamber in Hillsborough, had jumped on board. This month, a collection of nearly 40 business executives and leaders from across the bay endorsed the plan in a letter published in the Tampa Bay Times.

Baseball’s decision is “obviously disappointing,” said Tampa Bay Chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack.

“We thought it was a very innovative idea that could have set a whole new vision for all professional sports,” Rohrlack said. “We could have been the innovative first to do that.”

Rohrlack said officials throughout the region will now look back to Rays leadership for guidance on how to best support any plan that keeps the team in the region.

The decision could reignite discussions about where a new stadium could go in Tampa Bay, should the team stay here, but Rohrlack and Steinocher said it was too early to speculate on that.

“If I was Mr. Sternberg, I would have to open my eyes to every opportunity to stay in this region,” Steinocher said. “New plans, new ideas, could be welcome, should be welcome, and I anticipate seeing some of that. I don’t think we’re done yet.”

Ken Jones, CEO of St. Petersburg’s Third Lake Partners, one of the shortlisted finalists to redevelop the city’s Tropicana Field site, said the ruling could reopen discussions on how and where a new stadium could be built, whether it’s at the Trop site or in Ybor City. Jones was part of the Rays 100, a team-backed group of local executives and leaders that in 2018 explored a move to Tampa.

The Rays’ current interest in Ybor City is greater, he said, because “discussions with Tampa have gone much further down the road in this intervening period.”

Jones said he thought baseball’s decision made it slightly more likely the Rays will stay in Tampa Bay.

“I take Stu and his team at their word, that they don’t have plans to sell the team, they didn’t really have a plan B to go to another city,” he said. “So now, I think, okay, let’s get focused on Tampa Bay and making it work here.”

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said few of the people he’s talked to wanted to see the Rays play spring training games and the first few months of the season in Tampa before heading north to Montreal, as was proposed.

“Certainly this appears to put to bed a proposal that had very little popular support; to say that I found a handful of people that supported it is a modest exaggeration,” Viera said.

Plans for an Ybor City stadium had coalesced around properties owned by veterinary entrepreneur and real estate investor Darryl Shaw. Through a spokesman, Shaw declined to comment on the Rays news Thursday.

The reverberations of MLB’s decision rippled to Pasco County where a discussion had emerged for a multi-field player development site similar to the New York Yankees’ operation on Himes Avenue, across Dale Mabry Highway from Steinbrenner Field.

“Sadly, it puts a halt on things,” said Pasco Commission Chairperson Kathryn Starkey. “We’re in a pause that hopefully bright minds can find a solution for quickly.”