Tampa, Hillsborough await Rays’ stadium pitch

Tampa Bay Rays reveal stadium renderings the same day developer Darryl Shaw buys Ybor property.
A rendering of a proposed baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in the Ybor Channel area of Tampa was previewed by city, county and Tampa Sports Authority officials in a Nov. 22 zoom meeting.
A rendering of a proposed baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in the Ybor Channel area of Tampa was previewed by city, county and Tampa Sports Authority officials in a Nov. 22 zoom meeting. [ City of Tampa ]
Published Dec. 22, 2022|Updated Dec. 22, 2022

The city of St. Petersburg is in the batter’s box in potentially deciding the Tampa Bay Rays’ future stadium plans, but the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County are taking practice swings in the on-deck circle.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Tampa Bay Rays President Matt Silverman and others from the team met via videoconference with Tampa Sports Authority CEO Eric Hart, Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise, Tampa Mayor Jan Castor’s chief of staff John Bennett and other city, county and authority representatives for a briefing on a proposed baseball stadium north of the Ybor Channel.

The meeting came the same day Darryl Shaw’s Banana Docks LLC closed on the $1.2 million purchase of two parcels intended to become part of the project. The land, formerly owned by the J.H. Williams Oil Company, is a quadrilateral-shaped lot at 1616 Penny St. and the adjoining property at 1705 E Adamo Drive at the edge of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

Shaw had previously announced plans to acquire and develop the adjoining 25-acre ship repair site at the north end of Port Tampa Bay — land the Rays had targeted as a stadium location in 2016.

Renderings of the Rays’ new stadium plan, shown to city and county officials during the Nov. 22 briefing, were released to the Tampa Bay Business Journal after city of Tampa Mobility Director Vic Bhide grabbed a screenshot of the pictures. It was the first public confirmation of the Rays’ continued interest in potentially moving the team to Tampa after two earlier failed attempts.

The city of Tampa has not yet provided records responsive to a Tampa Bay Times request Tuesday for all notes and other documents that Bhide may have produced. Normally, in highly sensitive stadium talks, participants don’t take notes to avoid creating a public record. However, Bhide took the screen shots “for note-taking purposes,” said Adam Smith, a Castor spokesperson.

Tampa Sports Authority and county and city staff, along with Commissioner Ken Hagan and Mayor Jane Castor, were scheduled to speak by phone Tuesday afternoon.

The publicity came as the Rays simultaneously seek a deal in St. Petersburg for a new stadium as part of redeveloping the Tropicana Field site as the Historic Gas Plant District. In essence, the team proposed marriage to St. Petersburg while still flirting with another suitor across the Bay.

The Tampa Bay Rays didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“We understand the Rays are looking at alternative options just as the city considers all its options related to the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District,” Mayor Ken Welch said in a statement.

“We clearly want them in Tampa and St. Pete clearly wants them in St. Pete,” said Castor.

The Nov. 22 stadium update also came just two weeks after Hillsborough County voters rejected a sales tax referendum to pay for transportation. It puts the county government in a position of trying to assist with what could be a near-billion-dollar baseball stadium after acknowledging a 10-year, $2.2 billion shortfall of its own to build and maintain roads, intersections, sidewalks and trails.

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“The transportation needs in this county certainly are great and the infrastructure needs for a stadium are great as well. So, it’s always been a difficult package,” said Wise.

Commissioner Michael Owen, who represents eastern and southern Hillsborough, was more blunt.

“It’s just a real tough thing to sell a commitment for a baseball stadium right now,” said Owen. “I don’t know how excited my constituents are to fund a baseball stadium where we’re at right now.”

Hagan, who sits on the Sports Authority board and has been a leading proponent of trying to bring the Rays to Tampa, was more optimistic.

“Bottom line is the devil is in the details,” said Hagan. “My goal has always been for the ballpark to be primarily financed with user fees, not tax dollars.”

A study commissioned by the Tampa Sports Authority on another Shaw-owned site in Ybor City suggested paying for the public portion of the stadium costs through a potential levy or assessment within a new ballpark district that would take in the stadium site and areas beyond it. That study, released in February, also calculated an additional $14 million a year in property taxes from nearly 6 million square feet of “ancillary development” in Ybor City.

The study projected the cost for a stadium with a roof, capable of holding 27,000 fans, at up to $960 million. That stadium proposal, part of the Rays’ plan to play a split season with Montreal, died after Major League Baseball killed the shared season concept on Jan. 20.

But that didn’t end the prospects of a stadium in Tampa. Less than two weeks later, according to authority records, the Sports Authority’s consulting attorney, Irwin P. Raij, was on the phone with the Rays, Hart and Skanska — a consultant on the stadium proposal. By April, Raij was talking to Shaw as well as city and county officials.

The pace of those talks and the Rays’ due diligence picked up after Aug. 31 when Shaw made public his planned acquisition of the land at Ybor Channel. Through a spokesperson, Shaw declined to comment for this story.

But the Sports Authority, city and county likely aren’t in a hurry to devise a financing package while the redevelopment proposals are in play in St. Petersburg. The methodical pace diminishes the opportunities for the team to leverage one city’s proposal against the other’s.

Hagan and Wise said the Rays have yet to make a specific proposal. Wise characterized the conversations as preliminary and said the county must “understand the needs of the team and their plans before you can really propose anything meaningful. That’s what we were trying to do, is understand what they’re proposing to us and requesting from us.”

Castor, in a statement, acknowledged, “There are still significant questions that need to be answered in terms of financing, infrastructure, and more.”

So, what’s the next step?

“That’s probably a better question for them (the Rays),” said Wise.

Times staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.