Any productive discussion of Tropicana site re-development should start with the thing that everybody is scared to say out loud, but which many now acknowledge: The Tampa Bay Rays are awesome, but pro baseball is no longer the highest and best use of those 86 acres.
St. Petersburg’s city leadership should make the decision now to end pro baseball at the Trop after the 2027 season, and allow the team out of the Trop lease earlier if a new stadium in Tampa Bay can be completed before then. The 20-plus year baseball experiment has been run, and its outcome is beyond debate. The Trop site never worked as intended for the Rays or for the adjacent neighborhoods — and how could it? Pro baseball creates economic activity for only a few hours per day on maybe 90 days per year, and few of the incremental jobs created are career-track positions.
Team threats to leave the area would appear to be bluffs. Tampa Bay is already the #18 metro market in the U.S. by population, and the Rays hold the only MLB franchise in the vast high-growth region between Atlanta and Miami. As long as there’s a suitable place to play, no Major League Baseball team would walk away from those attributes. And there are multiple superior places to build a stadium in Tampa Bay. In the Pinellas Gateway area alone, there are three sites — Toytown, Derby Lane, Airco — but that’s a topic for another essay.
The other elephant-in-the-room issue that has been largely ignored is money. With the passage of time and the extraordinary popularity of downtown St. Pete, the 86-acre Trop site is now worth somewhere between $400 million and $700 million by most valuation methodologies, when considering the up-zoning and new infrastructure implied by the Sugar Hill and Midtown re-development plans. But the highest land purchase price publicly mentioned by either the Sugar Hill or Midtown development groups is only $106 million.
The value of the Trop site belongs to the citizens and taxpayers. Handing that value to a private for-profit development group for a fraction of its true market value is a bad deal for all of St. Pete’s citizens, even if Sugar Hill and Midtown are promising to splash a few million dollars here and there to important local charities and non-profit organizations.
This leaves city leaders with two re-development approaches that make sense, and neither of them involves centrally planned and government-micromanaged development schemes like Sugar Hill and Midtown.
The first option — let’s call it the “organic” approach — is right under our noses. The terrific authenticity and diversity of redeveloped city neighborhoods like the EDGE, Grand Central, Central Arts, Beach Drive NE and Warehouse Arts districts occurred precisely because these neighborhoods were not centrally planned development schemes. They were built block by block by entrepreneurs, non-profits, small businesses and local developers risking their own money and acting on their own visions of what would be useful for the community.
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Under an organic approach, the city would still hold the power to create the blueprint for the redevelopment areas (setting density limits, restoration of street grid, allocating areas for greenspace, etc.) but otherwise its main role would be selling the Trop site parcel-by-parcel in an orderly fashion, getting paid appropriate value for the land, and using the money for key city priorities or returning the windfall to the citizens themselves.
The second re-development option — let’s call it the “transformative” approach — has the city government not monetizing the land value, but rather using the Trop acreage as bait to attract a transformative use for the site which brings its own jobs engine, such as a university extension or major corporate re-location. (Dirty little secret: For all their grandiosity, neither the Sugar Hill nor Midtown schemes assure any jobs engine whatsoever after the initial construction phase, if they can even find the money to complete the construction phase.)
Conveniently, there is an excellent recent case study of the transformative approach. During Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York, the city found itself in control of a 12-acre contiguous waterfront parcel on Roosevelt Island east of Manhattan. Bloomberg’s team ran a global competitive process to attract an educational institution that would use the site to create a new campus primarily devoted to the applied sciences. They received interest from Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, New York University and others. Today the site is home to the major new Cornell Tech graduate school campus for Cornell University.
St. Pete could pursue a similar process for the Trop site, which is bigger and far superior to the New York site in most respects. We need to throw off any residual small town-ism and understand the proper value and potential national significance of the Trop site. It is 86 contiguous urban acres, with excellent transport links, adjacent to thriving walkable neighborhoods and in one of the most popular cities within Florida, the state that everyone is moving to.
One wildcard redevelopment idea along these lines could be an expansion of the State University System of Florida, which currently consists of 12 universities. Except for the relatively small addition of Florida Poly in 2012, the state university system has not founded a new university in 25 years. This despite 50% population growth in the state over that timeframe, and a situation where each year thousands of highly qualified Florida high school students cannot be admitted to their preferred state universities due to space constraints.
If the Trop site were to be considered as the site for a significant new 13th state university, it would be the only school in the whole system located in a truly walkable big city setting and — bonus — we’ve already got the stadium.
Tom Mullins is a retired Raymond James officer and was a candidate for St. Petersburg City Council in 2021.