The key challenges for Tampa Bay in 2019 are familiar ones. Yet there could be pivotal moments this year in each of these areas that could have long-term impact on the entire region.
The disappointing collapse of negotiations to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Ybor City leaves the region looking for a way forward to secure the long-term future of Major League Baseball here. Pinellas County and St. Petersburg are expected to reach out to the Rays to see if the team is more open to a new stadium on the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. At the same time, Hillsborough officials should work independently to determine if the Ybor City site could still work or if another site might hold more potential. That will be awkward, because the three-year window has closed for the Rays to negotiate with anyone but St. Petersburg. Regardless of the location and price of a new stadium, the Rays should be prepared to pay half of the cost. Anything less would be a tough sell financially and politically.
Downtown redevelopment continues to take center stage. In Tampa, Jeff Vinik's $3 billion Water Street Tampa project is transforming the downtown waterfront. USF's new Morsani College of Medicine & Heart Institute is scheduled to open in late 2019, anchoring the 50-acre, mixed-use project that will bring new offices, shops, parks, housing and entertainment to the southern end of downtown. This promises to change the urban core's look and feel, economics and jobs base.
In St. Petersburg, there will be more focus on redevelopment plans for the 85 acres surrounding Tropicana Field. The city has hired an architect to draft a master plan for the site with and without a baseball stadium. Possible amenities include parks, a pedestrian promenade and a convention center surrounded by businesses, retail, entertainment and residential units, with an emphasis on affordable housing.
By this spring, the details will be worked out for the consolidation of the University of South Florida's main campus in Tampa with campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. A task force is expected to issue its recommendations by mid-February, and the USF Board of Trustees is expected to approve the consolidation plan by mid-March. The idea is to create one seamless, preeminent university. But the final proposal should be an improvement over a consultant's initial plan, which failed to give USFSP enough improvements to offset the loss of its now-independent colleges of business, education and arts and sciences.
The three-county regional utility, Tampa Bay Water, is expected to reconsider a plan in February by the city of Tampa to convert highly treated wastewater into a regional source for drinking water. The project could enable Tampa to meet its long-term water needs, provide a drought-resistant water resource for Pinellas and Pasco counties and help remove thousands of pounds of pollutants from the wastewater that Tampa releases into the bay. The plan could save the region tens of millions of dollars in avoided costs for new water supply projects - but it will take a fair hearing to move the project forward in February.
On the state level, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled he will take a stronger stand on clean water than outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, from opposing oil drilling off the coasts to more aggressively addressing red tide outbreaks and the need for a South Florida reservoir. This could be an issue ripe for bipartisan cooperation.
Hillsborough County will begin to see the first improvements in 2019 from the transportation tax that county voters approved in November. More buses, expanded routes and road improvements are on the way - the first steps in a 30-year plan to modernize the county's transportation grid. At the same time, a partnership between intercity passenger operator Brightline and the Virgin Group is moving to establish rail service between Tampa and Orlando, which ultimately would connect commuters from the bay area to South Florida. Regional leaders are also exploring a bus rapid-transit line connecting St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel.
In St. Petersburg, a $41 million bus rapid transit project should move forward to connect downtown and the beaches. With state and local money secured, Tampa Bay's first BRT system still needs about $20 million in federal funds released before it can begin operating in late 2020 or early 2021.
These major developments promise to transform commuting across the region.