The Tampa Bay Rays open their 20th season Sunday in sold-out Tropicana Field with new turf, new concessions (a $13 grilled cheese burger!?), new players — and a familiar discussion about prospects for a new stadium. By Opening Day in 2018, there should be a site selected for the next Rays ballpark and a general agreement on how to pay for it. The continuing uncertainty is unhealthy for the Rays and for a region that is enjoying a growth spurt but cannot afford to lose major-league baseball.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg threw everyone a curve ball last week when he said the team's top locations for a new stadium are unavailable and the effort to find a site may stretch until the end of the year. That declaration sounded particularly concerning since the Rays have long acknowledged they have no room for error in choosing a site that has the best potential for this small-market franchise to ensure its long-term success. The last thing anyone wants is a repeat of the Miami Marlins, who settled for a less than desirable site for an expensive new stadium and still are not drawing as well as projected.
It turns out Sternberg's observations are less alarming than they initially sounded because of the sites he had in mind. In St. Petersburg, Al Lang Stadium and Albert Whitted Airport are gorgeous locations along the downtown waterfront but were never viable options. The same is true in Hillsborough County, where a mixed-use project already is under construction near the Hillsborough River; Jefferson High School in Tampa's West Shore District is not going to be moved; and an apartment complex is planned for the too-small parcel that was the Tampa Tribune's home. Those always were fields of dreams.
The reality is that each potential stadium site has benefits and drawbacks, from size to views to accessibility to potential funding sources. Still on the table are Tampa Park Apartments between downtown and Ybor City in Hillsborough County, and perhaps other sites that could be assembled in roughly the same area. In Pinellas County, the Derby Lane dog track along Gandy Boulevard has not been ruled out, and there remains interest among some officials in other privately owned property in mid Pinellas.
As expected, the Tropicana Field site in downtown St. Petersburg looks more attractive the more the challenges are exposed at other sites. The 85 acres are publicly owned, and St. Petersburg and private consultants have developed a master development plan both with and without a stadium. The Rays could share the proceeds from redevelopment, and it seems increasingly apparent that the most appealing stadium plan regardless of location would include public money, a significant investment by the Rays — and money from another private source tied to adjacent development. Whether team owners in larger markets who have been subsidizing the Rays through Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing system would be satisfied with a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site that has ranked at the bottom in attendance is another question.
Mayor Rick Kriseman achieved a major accomplishment last year by breaking a yearslong stalemate and winning City Council approval of an agreement with the Rays to look for stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. But that agreement expires at the end of next year, and there has been little public progress in the last 15 months. Frankly, all sides sound a bit frustrated, and the broader Tampa Bay community should be more engaged.
This could be a quiet period as more work gets done behind the scenes, and the public often doesn't respond forcefully until there is a full-blown crisis on an issue that has been simmering. Yet as another baseball season opens, there should be a greater sense of urgency to identify and move forward on a stadium site by the end of the year. There is no time clock in baseball, but on the stadium debate you can hear one ticking.