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Longshot or not, Rays’ plan for Montreal is picking up support

John Romano | Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is preparing financing options for a scaled-back stadium in Ybor City the team would use for its split-season plan with Montreal.
The split season plan for Montreal doesn't seem to resonate with a lot of Rays fans, but it is picking up support in political and business circles.
The split season plan for Montreal doesn't seem to resonate with a lot of Rays fans, but it is picking up support in political and business circles. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2021

TAMPA — By now, you are likely immune to any headlines of incremental change in the Rays pursuit of a stadium. And, considering this has been going on since Wander Franco was a toddler, a certain level of indifference is excusable.

So, just in case you missed the news this week that Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and her people are exploring a financial plan to potentially build a stadium in Ybor City, allow me to butt in:

This is kind of a big deal. And I say that for two reasons.

No. 1, the last time the Rays were talking about a stadium in Ybor City, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn gave the appearance of a disinterested observer. Maybe he was working feverishly behind the scenes but, right or wrong, the stance he took publicly gave the impression that the stadium was not a priority.

No. 2, by showing a willingness to get involved in this latest plan, Castor becomes the most visible public figure to endorse, at least tacitly, the team’s sister city proposal with Montreal. Whether you agree or disagree with the concept, it is now being taken seriously by people who matter.

None of this means the plan is a done deal. The Rays still need to get MLB’s approval to actively begin this pursuit (which will likely happen), they still need to get the players association to agree (which will likely involve offering players additional money in the form of housing subsidies) and they still need to build stadiums in both Montreal and Tampa Bay (which may require minor miracles).

Still, it’s a significant step that the mayor’s office is saying a financial plan could be forwarded to the Rays by the end of this month.

The last time the Rays were talking about a stadium in Ybor City, it was financing — naturally — that torpedoed the deal. It was, in fact, that particular train wreck that led to the Montreal idea.

Prior to 2018, the Rays were convinced a stadium near downtown Tampa was the magic bullet for their attendance woes, and they had lobbied for years for the chance to explore their options in Hillsborough.

Yet, after planning and searching from 2015-18, team officials were so discouraged by what they hinted was a lack of corporate support behind that original Ybor plan that it eventually led to their belief that there was not enough money in Tampa Bay to sustain an average MLB payroll.

That’s what led to the half-season plan and that, in turn, led to the idea of a scaled-back stadium in Ybor City.

It’s important to understand this backstory because a lot of people seem to think this is a bait-and-switch scam. That the Rays are using the Montreal proposal as a ploy to get more funding for a full-time stadium in Tampa.

If that’s the case, they’ve already duped the Chamber of Commerce and now the mayor.

The Rays insist they have no interest in being a full-time franchise in Tampa Bay beyond 2027. And they are willing to invest up to half the cost of a smaller, boutique-style facility only because it will be significantly cheaper than a stadium with an upper deck and retractable roof.

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This is the reality that Tampa officials need to consider as they put their financing plan together. Is an investment of up to $350 million (not including proposed infrastructure money from the state) worth having a team for 15 or so spring training games and 35-40 regular season games?

And if you look at it from that point of view, it’s more home games than the Lightning play every season down the road at Amalie Arena.

Castor says the stadium will not be built on the backs of Tampa residents, which suggests the government’s portion of the funding will be some mix of tourist taxes (hotels, rental cars, etc.) and a specialized tax district for the new business development the stadium will likely generate in that area.

Can the mayor pull that off? She seems confident, although it’s important to point out the Rays have dealt with four other mayors in Tampa and St. Petersburg since 2008 and haven’t found a deal they were willing to take.

More than a decade after this search began, we’re still talking about some of the same issues and a certain weariness is to be expected.

But that doesn’t mean the latest headline is any less consequential.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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