The St. Petersburg Rays. I like the sound of it. The cool city with the amazing vibe paired with the scrappy baseball team that you can never count out.
As we learn more about the proposed Rays stadium deal, one thing has become very apparent. If accepted by the St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission, the taxpayer subsidy of the enterprise will be enormous.
According to a recent Tampa Bay Times analysis, if the deal goes through as proposed — with a contribution to building the stadium, tax increment financing dollars, interest payments and infrastructure payments — the city and county will be contributing $1.29 billion. Wow!
In the coming months, the City Council will be discussing whether this enormous investment — most heavily felt by St. Petersburg taxpayers and Pinellas County tourism funds — is worth the benefits. Or whether it would be less costly and more economically beneficial to sell the city’s land to others who may provide similar benefits without the baseball stadium. Other than baseball, among the benefits identified in the Rays/Hines proposal are open space, affordable housing, senior housing, a museum and intentional equity initiatives. Offices, hospitality and medical are also in the plans.
Whether the stadium and land proposal is a good deal for St. Petersburg taxpayers is a topic worthy of debate, but I won’t address it here. The specific point of the proposal that I will address today is the name of the team. Why would our taxpayers invest over a billion dollars for a team named after Tampa?
It is silly to argue that the outside world sees any difference between the names Tampa Bay and Tampa. Even professional sports announcers for teams in the region use the two names interchangeably. We have all heard it.
The Rays in their proposal have generously offered to allow the team to wear jerseys that say St. Petersburg Rays for one of the 162 games each year — only if Major League Baseball (MLB) agrees. Nearly $1.3 billion invested — one day of branding for St. Petersburg. Really?
Now, for my many friends across the bay, know that I believe Tampa is a great city.
So is St. Petersburg.
Therefore, I have an alternative suggestion. Whichever city provides the land and funding should get the name of the team 162 out of 162 games per year. If Tampa provides the land and funding, call the team Tampa Bay or Tampa, whichever they want. St. Petersburg could then turn to finding alternative uses for 86 acres in one of the hottest downtowns in the Southeast — and save a lot of money. I think we would do OK.
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But if the St. Petersburg City Council provides very valuable land and adds this significant financial burden to future city taxpayers, please at least have the gumption to require that the team be called the St. Petersburg Rays.
When IndyCar came to St. Petersburg, we required that the race be named after St. Petersburg. It is now respected and known throughout the racing world and has lifted our city’s image considerably. And no one stays home because it is not a “regional” name.
It is more than a question of civic pride, which is important. It is about city identity and branding. A city’s brand impacts business relocation, economic development and tourism. For example, as part of the Marlins deal to secure funding for their new MLB stadium, the team’s name was changed from a regional name (Florida Marlins) to the Miami Marlins.
Pinellas County spends millions of dollars each year to promote St. Petersburg/Clearwater tourism around the country and world. Why would we not want the baseball team to do the same as the county dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars of hotel bed tax money to the Rays’ enterprise?
St. Petersburg is a significant cultural, business, technology, educational, tourism and financial center. It is simply not appropriate to ask our citizens to pay hundreds of millions of their tax dollars to build a stadium for a baseball team named after another city. If the Rays and/or MLB have so little respect for our city that they refuse to name the team St. Petersburg Rays, perhaps they should find another place to play.
Rick Baker is a former mayor of St. Petersburg.