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Is it possible the new favorite for a Rays stadium is the same old site?

John Romano | Financing and land have always been easier to find at the Tropicana Field site. After years of fruitless searches, it could be a default answer.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives a thumbs-up after throwing a strike on the ceremonial first pitch on Jackie Robinson Day at Tropicana Field on Friday. Welch's next pitch to the Rays could determine the team's future in Tampa Bay.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch gives a thumbs-up after throwing a strike on the ceremonial first pitch on Jackie Robinson Day at Tropicana Field on Friday. Welch's next pitch to the Rays could determine the team's future in Tampa Bay. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 23|Updated Apr. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — Here, on the precipice of a city’s future, they are selling Cracker Jack.

There is music, laughter and the occasional mascot running past. The future is expensive, contentious and entirely in doubt, and yet the mood is festive and the hot dogs are sizzling.

Sitting in the middle of all of this on Tropicana Field’s club level Friday night is the man in charge of procuring that future. He is wearing a replica Rays jersey and a disarming look of assurance.

Tampa is undoubtedly the team’s preferred site for a new stadium, and other cities across the nation are prepping for the possibility that the Rays are free agents when the Tropicana lease runs out after 2027.

So how ’bout it, Mayor Ken Welch, aren’t you worried about the future of baseball and St. Pete’s status as a major-league town?

“I think it gets solved,” Welch said. “A new, right-sized stadium with the right amenities connected to our downtown — I still would love it to be open-air, but apparently that’s probably not going to happen — can get us where we need to be. I don’t think we need to be a 30,000-attendance per night venue.

“That’s why we hired the financial consultant to tell us what the finances really look like. How much is really coming from television?”

Welch is not the first St. Petersburg mayor to deal with this issue. Nor is he the second or third. The Rays stadium saga stretches beyond decades and bridges and, as far as the public can see, is no closer to being solved than it was in 2007 when owner Stu Sternberg proposed a waterfront venue.

And yet, behind the scenes, there’s a sense that the pendulum might be swinging back in St. Pete’s direction. Or, at least, toward the middle.

The core issues haven’t changed — attendance in St. Petersburg has been a disappointment, the Rays have been evasive about their willingness to invest, the political appetite in Hillsborough County has been lukewarm — but Welch believes there is a simple, logical path forward.

St. Petersburg has the land, it has a funding mechanism with Pinellas County’s tourist tax, and it has a growing, affluent population emerging around the current Tropicana Field site.

There is no amount of spin that can erase St. Pete’s underwhelming support at the box office, but the combination of using the team’s contractual windfall from redeveloping the Trop site and the possibility of turning 86 acres of land into a destination spot similar to Atlanta’s Battery district might — reluctantly — be enough to convince the Rays they won’t find a better deal elsewhere.

“(The Braves) have got deals with development rights and commercial space around it, I still have to dig into the details, but that’s what our consultants will do,” Welch said. “Give us the various models we can use — and I’ll just throw a number out — for us to come up with $600 million, half of a $1.2 billion facility.

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“It’s more than a stadium because it will have multiple uses. How does that tie into a conference center and meeting spaces? I just think if we are creative and innovative, we’ve got so many drivers behind us, and the growth is happening, that we can be successful.”

Meanwhile, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is pushing for the Rays to choose between Tampa and St. Pete “in short order” so each city can move ahead.

And while the Rays have not been shy about wanting to move closer to the region’s geographic/economic center, they have not come close to figuring out the funding for a full-season stadium in Tampa. They began looking at Ybor City in 2015 but shut down the talks in 2018 when they couldn’t come to terms on financing for an $892 million stadium.

The split-city stadium plan in Ybor was a smaller project without a roof, and the cost would have been closer to $700 million.

But now that MLB has nixed the sister-city plan with Montreal, the Rays say a roof is necessary if they’re going to be playing through the heat and rain of the summer months. Even if it is a fixed roof, as opposed to a more expensive retractable model, the cost will be pushing $1 billion.

At this point, there seems to be little appetite in Tampa/Hillsborough to come up with a deal for that much money.

“There’s a point where it’s too much,” Welch conceded. “But we need first to see what the total price is and what they’ll contribute to it. I’ve always said at least 50/50. And then see what our revenue streams can produce to solve for X. Now we know if we bond a penny of (hotel) bed tax, it’s $200 to $250 million. And we know there’s other mechanisms you can use: development rights, maybe a TIF (tax increment financing), naming rights are in there. We’re solving our half of the equation, and I think we can get there.

“You can’t take taxes that pay for cops on the street and use it to pay for baseball. That’s why we’re limited to the tourist development tax, which pays for exactly that kind of thing.”

For years, politicians around the nation have cited an iconic line from the film Field of Dreams to justify the pursuit of building a stadium. In St. Pete, they might be borrowing another line from Hollywood.

There’s no place like home.

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

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