Depending on which hot take you want to place your bet on, the Tampa Bay Rays either have strongly reconsidered their previous aversion to building a new ballpark in St. Petersburg or recent talks with Mayor Ken Welch are just a distraction from the real conversation with Hillsborough County leaders about an Ybor City stadium.
And leaders on both sides of the bay expect something to happen by the end of the month.
Rays owner Stu Sternberg made a surprise appearance at a meeting between Hillsborough and Tampa Sports Authority officials and Rays executives about a month ago, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times.
Neither Hagan nor Tampa Mayor Jane Castor were at that meeting. Castor hasn’t met with Sternberg or anyone else in the Rays organization since early February, spokesperson Adam Smith said. Her chief of staff and chief financial officer met with team officials in late April.
Any major source of taxpayer financing would have to come with the county’s blessing.
“We have never viewed this as a competition with St. Pete or Pinellas,” Castor said in a statement. “I have said all along that our main priority is keeping the team in Tampa Bay.
“The team tells us they still are very interested in the Ybor site ... The county, (Sports Authority), and city are conceptualizing financing options, but the stadium has to fit and enhance the community, and we’re trying to get a better understanding of the team’s design expectations for a full-season stadium.”
Earlier this year, Major League Baseball killed a proposal by the Rays to split home games between Tampa and Montreal. Under that plan, the team envisioned needing a smaller than typical stadium in Tampa that required less public financial support.
The team has said it would need a full-sized stadium if it stays in Tampa Bay for the full season.
The Rays declined an interview request, but Rays President Brian Auld gave this statement: “We are solely focused on keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay and appreciate the renewed energy toward that shared goal.”
‘Put a ring on it’
Castor has said the Rays need to choose which side of the bay that the team wants to build on. Welch agrees, and says Pinellas County’s Tourist Development Council, which would be asked to support using hotel bed taxes for a new stadium, will require that commitment, too.
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Welch, however, met with the Rays and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton on May 23. He told the Times he thinks those meetings will be more frequent going forward.
Welch said he’s on track to meet his own June 30 deadline to pick between two developers for the Tropicana Field site — Miami’s Midtown Development and Sugar Hill, a group led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures. A group of local pastors recently endorsed Sugar Hill, while former mayor Rick Kriseman chose Midtown, which was endorsed by the Pinellas County Urban League.
Welch is tacking on a trip to Sacramento to see some of JMA’s work after a trip to Reno, Nevada for the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week. He visited Miami to see Midtown projects earlier this year. He said he believes the Rays also have met with both developers.
Asked if the Rays agreed to the June 30 timeline, Welch said, “We’re having productive conversations.”
“You can’t make that decision until you’ve got some certainty on the Rays,” Welch said. “I think we’re making good progress answering a lot of questions that have to be answered.”
Those include settling on a location and crafting a broad development agreement.
“At some point for us to go forward and make significant investments in time, and resources and to make a significant ask of the county for bed tax, they’ll need to put a ring on it,” he said. “I need to be engaged, let’s put it that way.”
The Rays’ stadium saga has bumped along for 15 years. The team first pitch a stadium on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, a proposal that fell apart acrimoniously in negotiations with then-mayor Rick Baker. The Rays later successfully persuaded another mayor, Rick Kriseman, to allow them to look in Tampa. The St. Petersburg City Council eventually agreed 2016 to let the team look across the bay for three years.
In 2018, the Rays announced plans for an $892 million Ybor stadium in 2018 only to withdraw the proposal later that year after clashing with county officials about how to pay for it. The Kforce site became their preferred target in 2021 for a smaller, open-air split-season venue before that plan was squelched by Major League Baseball.
Raising the issue of a roof
An issue that could be the deciding factor in the Rays’ choice is the type of roof, which the team says is now a requirement for summer baseball in Tampa Bay and something Sternberg says is needed.
That’s where Welch says he sees an advantage.
“Particularly now that the Rays believe that you have to have a ceiling,” he said, “I think we’re making good progress answering a lot of questions that have to be answered.”
For instance, there’s concern over whether the former Kforce headquarters on East Palm Avenue at the western edge of Ybor could work with a roof.
Hillsborough officials think a “rain shield,” something like a $90 million option described in a consultant’s report earlier this year, is a workable option, Hagan said. A rain shield has been described by Castor to be similar to the roof at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the site of the Super Bowl earlier this year.
But he said that would require acquiring an adjacent piece of land leased by Tampa Electric Co., to increase the stadium footprint, he said.
“The roof works at Kforce, but we need the TECO parcel,” Hagan said, referring to the utility’s parent company.
Hagan said he has scheduled a meeting with TECO officials to discuss the matter.
As for a ballpark across the bay, Hagan said he expects the Rays to “fully vet” all their options.
“However, the team knows for them to be successful and sustainable in the long term it must be in Tampa,” Hagan said. “Unfortunately, St. Pete has been a failed business model.”
Major League Baseball would never allow the Rays to build again in the Sunshine City, Hagan said.