While it came as little surprise, the Tampa Bay Rays' selection of an Ybor City site near Tampa's Channel District as the best spot for a new stadium is an important milestone in the effort to keep Major League Baseball. Now comes the hard work of devising a stadium financing plan and building stronger regional support through a new community effort. Significant progress has to be made by the end of the year, and that will require political and civic leadership, creativity and sustained focus.
Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg joined Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in confirming the selection of the Ybor City site on Friday at the Tampa Baseball Museum. A new nonprofit, Tampa Bay Rays 2020, will seek to recruit more financial commitments from businesses and build fan enthusiasm to demonstrate the increased community support the Rays say is required to move forward.
Sternberg called the Ybor City site "the finest opportunity for baseball to thrive,'' and it is attractive for several reasons. It is closer to the population center of Tampa Bay than Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. It is sandwiched between a booming downtown and the popular entertainment district in a re-emerging historic area. The spot also is well-served by highways and mass transit, and it sits across a waterfront that is fast becoming a hot neighborhood. Another plus is the 14-acre site that includes mostly warehouses now has been assembled and is controlled by a nonprofit run by Tampa business leaders Ron Christaldi and Charles Sykes, who also are leading the Rays 2020 drive.
Friday's announcement is the easy part. Finding ways to pay for a modern stadium that could cost $800 million will be difficult. The coordination between Tampa and Hillsborough County has to improve, and the effort to arrange the public financing portion of this project has to be transparent. The Rays also are going to have to kick in significantly more than the $150 million Sternberg has previously suggested to make the numbers work.
Still, the focus by the Rays and the region on Ybor City for a new stadium is a significant achievement toward securing the long-term future of the franchise in Tampa Bay. But it is not the first one. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council deserve credit for having the vision and courage to approve the agreement with the Rays that let the team look in both Hillsborough and Pinellas for the best stadium site. Without that deal, which expires in January, Tampa Bay would be at far greater risk of losing the Rays when the Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027, or even before.
As the Rays' fanfest opens today at the Trop and the franchise celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's essential that the stadium effort in Tampa and the campaign to build public support keeps a regional focus. Kriseman and Pinellas County Commission chair Ken Welch struck a gracious tone as news of the Ybor City site filtered out, and political and business leaders throughout the area should maintain that approach. The Rays are a regional asset, and it will take regional support to ensure baseball remains in Tampa Bay.
It has taken a decade to move the baseball stadium debate this far. It will be clear in less than a year whether this attractive vision for what Sternberg described as a "next generation neighborhood ballpark'' in Ybor City will work — and it could be the last, best option.